A Vladivostok photographer has captured the haunting phenomenon of North Korean fishing vessels drifting onto Russia's Primorsky Krai coastline.
This empty North Korean fishing vessel floated ashore on Russia’s eastern coastline in the spring of 2020. It is one of several such ships -- many carrying tragic backstories -- that wash onto Russia’s shores each year.
Since 2019, photographer Natalya Bulkina, who is based in Vladivostok in Russia's Far East, has been seeking out the ghostly North Korean shipwrecks.
Most of the ships that drift onto the Russian coastline are empty, but some carry the bodies of North Korean sailors or malnourished survivors of the storms that frequently lash the Sea of Japan.
In 2018, locals brought in an excavator to crunch through the hull of one upturned vessel that was wedged in the sand on a beach 150 kilometers from Vladivostok after hearing noises inside. Once the hull was broken open, a “skinny, red-eyed” Korean-speaking fisherman emerged. The fishermen who survive to make landfall in Russia are deported back to North Korea.
Bulkina, who moved to Vladivostok from her hometown near St. Petersburg, told RFE/RL that, after seeing several North Korean vessels during her adventures along the coastline, she realized the shipwrecks “were not some isolated case, but were part of a larger phenomenon.”
According to the Siberian Times, North Korean squid poachers frequently sail into Russian waters and use illegal drift nets, usually through the summer months.
A 2020 study concluded that massive Chinese trawler fleets poaching squid in recent years have drastically depleted seafood stocks in North Korean waters. With quotas to meet, North Korea's fishermen have been forced to make ever longer, riskier trips out to sea in their creaking wooden vessels.
Numbers of deaths at sea from the ruthlessly ruled authoritarian state are impossible to precisely tally. Russia does not keep count of the vessels washing ashore along its coast, but Japanese authorities reported nearly 600 of the ghost ships, with dozens of bodies discovered aboard, drifting onto its shores from 2016 to 2020.
Bulkina says the appalling condition of the North Korean fishing vessels she has seen makes her despair at “the hopeless courage” of people heading for the open ocean in such boats.
Since the coronavirus pandemic broke out, Bulkina says there has been a sharp downturn in the number of boats washing ashore on Russia’s eastern coastline. The photographer suspects this is more likely relating to quarantine measures rather than improved safety conditions for the totalitarian country's fishermen.
Bulkina told local media that shooting the images of the ghost ships gave her a "strong sense of despair, audacity, risk, and fear" and says standing close to the boats made her feel she could "guess the drama of these people who went into the sea in such flimsy vessels."