TOKYO – Nine people who say they are from North Korea arrived Tuesday in a black wooden boat off the western Japanese coast in what authorities suspect is a rare defection from the communist nation to Japan.
A fisherman contacted authorities after spotting the unfamiliar vessel in waters near the Noto peninsula, which juts into the Sea of Japan.
The three men, three women and three boys found on the black wooden boat told Japanese coast guard officials they came from North Korea and wanted to go to South Korea. No one required immediate medical attention.
The vessel is about 26-feet (8-meters) -long and marked with Korean characters, said Daisuke Takahashi, a spokesman with the Japan Coast Guard.
The coast guard said the nine said they departed North Korea last Thursday. Although the boat's engine was functioning when found, the group had run low on rations. The coast guard found a small amount of rice, some pickled vegetables and snacks. The group had run out of drinking water.
The coast guard said it was towing the boat to the port in Kanazawa, about 180 miles (290 kilometers) west of Tokyo, where it will investigate further.
North Korean defectors typically cross over the North's porous border with China or drift in boats over the Yellow Sea dividing line between North and South Korea, but they rarely come as far as Japan.
In 2007, a family of four North Korean defectors — a couple and two adult sons — traveled in an open boat for six days to reach northern Japan. They were the first defectors from the country to arrive by boat in Japan in 20 years.
The four said they were trying to escape extreme poverty and asked for asylum in South Korea, where they were sent.
In 1987, 11 crew members of a North Korean ship arrived at a port in western Japan and later defected to South Korea via Taiwan.
Defections are a sensitive matter between the Koreas, which are still technically at war because their 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Earlier this year, North Korea lashed out at the South when four of 31 North Koreans on a boat that drifted into southern waters refused to return home. The North said the four were held against their will.
More than 21,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the Korean War, according to South Korean government data.
Associated Press writers Malcolm Foster in Tokyo and Foster Klug in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.
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