The bodies had been drifting in the Sea of Japan for so long that only bones remained.
But investigators in face masks and coveralls found clues inside the battered wooden craft that pointed to a possible origin: an empty cigarette pack of a brand popular in North Korea and unused life jackets with Korean lettering.
It’s unclear how long those who were aboard the latest “ghost ship” to wash up on the coast of Japan had been there or when they died. Ocean currents off the coast of Japan shift and the waters get choppy in winter months, routinely washing ships ashore. More than 40 boats full of dead people have washed up this year, according to Sky News. In 2016, the number was 66.
The 23-foot boat was found in Akita Prefecture in northern Japan, according to Kyodo News, after a 68-year-old woman notified authorities about a dilapidated, drifting vessel.
“I was surprised to see the boat in such a bad condition,” she told the news organization.
Later, she said, she watched as authorities used stretchers to carry bodies off the boat.
It was not clear whether the people on the boat were fishermen who got into trouble at sea or people trying to defect from North Korea.
About 30,000 North Koreans have defected since the devastating famine in the mid-1990s. They tell stories of sometimes violent reprisals for political speech, being banished to labor camps for watching American movies and old-fashioned starvation.
But a silent, unknown number never survive the escape attempts, dying during desperate journeys to South Korea or China or Japan.
Others are captured and face severe punishment for trying to leave.
According to Vice, “the North Korean penal code states that defectors face two years of hard labor if they are caught crossing the border,” though punishments can vary.
Radio Free Asia reported that North Korean officials warned that citizens living near the Chinese border who are caught helping people defect would be put to death — and the punishments wouldn’t stop there. Family members of violators can be imprisoned or banished to remote regions of North Korea.
Still, North Koreans defect by the hundreds. This month, the world was riveted by the story of a North Korean soldier who escaped in dramatic fashion a few weeks ago — driving a Jeep southward until it got stuck in a ditch, then sprinting across the demilitarized zone.
His former comrades shot at him with pistols and assault rifles, putting at least five bullets into him.
South Korean soldiers found him in a pile of leaves and dragged him to safety, and he was flown to a hospital via helicopter.
Even before they learned his name, doctors said his condition told some of his story, according to The Washington Post’s Marwa Eltagouri. He had hepatitis B and tuberculosis, and parasitic worms nearly a foot long in his intestines.
Doctors say the worms point to the health and humanitarian crises inside the closed borders of North Korea.
Since then he has been recovering — and has become a source of demilitarized zone trolling.
South Korean soldiers have been broadcasting details about the defector’s improving medical condition across the demilitarized zone, according to Newsweek.
The speakers they use, which at one point were used to encourage soldiers to defect, can apparently be heard more than a dozen miles away.
“The news about an elite soldier like a JSA guard having fled in a hail of bullets will have a significant psychological impact on North Korean border guards,” said a military spokesman quoted in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo.