A boat is drifting along the coast. There’s no captain manning it, no visible passengers on the derelict wooden vessel. The “ghost ship” is missing its rotor blade, making it look like it’s facing the choppy waters on its own. Eventually, it washes up on a Japanese beach. In its hull, eight bodies — some in an advanced state of decomposition, making identification or origins of the boat impossible. But in all likelihood, it had set off from the coast of North Korea. Just two days earlier, Japanese officials inspecting another wreckage nearby with two skeletons aboard found a North Korean cigarette pack and life jackets with Korean writings.

Such grim scenes are only coming to light now, but the “ghost ships” of North Korea are not a new phenomenon. In Japan, two other boats, also reportedly coming from North Korea, suffered a similar fate this month, and a total of 44 deadly “ghost ships” have reached the Japanese coasts this year. A similar spate of 15 such vessels washed ashore in 2015.

It’s tempting to believe that the passengers were trying to escape the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong-un, especially with last week’s dramatic footage of a soldier’s escape across the Korean border fresh in our memories. Still, the rare survivors of one these shipwrecks told investigators that they were simply fishermen carried away by strong currents, and insisted on being reconducted to North Korea.

Hunger and politics, of course, continue to drive people to risk their lives elsewhere.

Driven by the country’s food shortages, North Korean fishermen are believed to be forced into deeper waters and venture ever farther on dangerously ill-equipped ships. For Seo Yu-suk, a research manager of North Korean Studies Institution in Seoul, such an increase on seafood quotas is a direct consequence of toughened U.S.-led sanctions against the rogue state, which President Trump recently called a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

Hunger and politics, of course, continue to drive people to risk their lives elsewhere. Over the weekend, at least 30 would-be migrants — including three children and 18 women — drowned off the coast of Libya when their boats sank, Italian daily Corriere della Serra reports.

A recent study by the International Organization for Migration has found that between 2000 and 2017, at least 33,761 people fleeing violence or poverty have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean, earning the Sea the macabre distinction of being “the world's deadliest border." Not a week goes by without local police and coast guards conducting rescuing operations, looking for surviving passengers from Somalia, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, etc. — and recovering bodies from the sea.

From the Sea of Japan to the Mediterranean, an apparently empty “ghost ship” and a terribly overcrowded rubber raft would seem to offer a portrait in contrast. But the drifting vessels in fact tell the same story: the risk of staying vs. the risk of leaving.

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