Strange--and tragic--stories out of North Korea are not unusual: the regime's brutality at times overwhelms its secrecy so that credible accounts of starvation, torture, arbitrary execution, and other crimes make their way beyond its tightly sealed borders. But this latest story, even by North Korean standards, is macabre.
The Los Angeles Times reports today that since last November at least fourteen North Korean boats carrying over thirty partially decomposed bodies have floated ashore along Japan's west coast. Initial speculation centered on the possibility that the "ghost ships" were carrying defectors who had tried to escape North Korea on boats instead of attempting the overland crossing into China. But when a Japanese scholar, North Korea expert Satoru Miyamoto, examined photos of the boats, he realized that they had belonged to the military's commercial section. The dead, he believes, were members of the military pressed into service as fishermen in an effort to alleviate North Korea's dire shortage of food. Miyamoto's theory suggests that those found on the boats perished as a consequence of their own inexperience as fishermen--and, no doubt, the pressure of unreasonable demands being made on them.
Last summer, the North Korean government spoke openly about the impact of drought on the country's rice production. UN assistance to North Korea has declined over the course of the last decade as a consequence of the international community's efforts to punish the regime for its nuclear activities.