Trial of a Shipwrecked North Korean Calls Attention to Sanctions


HAKODATE, Japan—A North Korean fishing-boat captain admitted trying to steal goods from a Japanese island in a trial that highlights the possible impact of sanctions pressure on Pyongyang.

Kang Myong Hak, 45, the captain of a squid-fishing boat that drifted to Japan in November, appeared in court in northern Japan on Friday, charged with the attempted theft of around $50,000 worth of items, including a generator, solar panels and a television. A trial of a North Korean resident in Japan is highly unusual.

Still heavily sun-tanned from weeks at sea, Mr. Kang described how after departing the port of Chongjin in the northeast of North Korea around Sept. 15, the crew lost control of the boat because of equipment failures and bad weather.

Mr. Kang, who looked fatigued and who sometimes confused an interpreter with his regional dialect, told the court he had only intended to be at sea for two weeks, but both the ship’s engine and rudder broke.

The crew of 10 also battled flooding from holes in the ship’s hull, Mr. Kang said, but they were able to remain afloat until they neared a tiny island off the coast of Hokkaido in northern Japan one night in mid-November. Beams from a lighthouse alerted them to a harbor.

“We would have died if I hadn’t landed on the island on the morning of 17th,” Mr. Kang said.

The crew found the island was uninhabited but remained there for around 10 days expecting someone to arrive, Mr. Kang said. When no one did, the captain said, he told the crew to take items from a shelter to raise their spirits. The shelter is used by occasional visitors from the local fishery association.

If they had managed to return to North Korea, Mr. Kang said, he thought most items would have been taken from them by authorities, but at the time he hoped they might be able to keep some.

“I once again apologize from the bottom of my heart,” Mr. Kang said.

Mr. Kang’s ship was one of a record 104 North Korean fishing vessels to wash up in Japan last year, up from 66 a year earlier, according to the Japanese Coast Guard. Many arrived without any living crew members aboard.

Japanese government officials have speculated that the rise in the number of ships is related to economic pressure felt by North Korea because of international sanctions.

On a phone call early Friday in Japan, Prime Minister

Shinzo Abe

and President

Donald Trump

both said North Korea’s recent shift to seek talks showed the impact of sanctions, according to an official Japanese summary of the call.

During the court hearing, Mr. Kang provided no clarity on whether sanctions had affected his operations, such as whether he had been under orders to catch more fish or had insufficient fuel. His lawyer declined to comment.

Mr. Kang and his crew left the Japanese island after about two weeks due to a shortage of food and water. They were picked up soon afterward by a coast-guard vessel.

Prosecutors called for a prison term of two years and six months for Mr. Kang, while defense lawyers are seeking a suspended sentence.

The court is scheduled to deliver a verdict on March 27. Eight of the crew members have been repatriated to North Korea, and one is being treated in a Japanese hospital for tuberculosis.

Write to Chieko Tsuneoka at [email protected] and Alastair Gale at [email protected]

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