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Presumed North Korean Defectors Found in Japanese Waters

A boat is towed by Japanese coast guard patrol vessel (not pictured) after it was found carrying nine people off the coast of Noto Peninsula, in northwestern Japan, September 13, 2011.

A boat believed to be carrying nine North Korean defectors has been found drifting off Japan’s western coast. Local officials are trying to determine their identities and how they ended up in Japanese waters.

A Japanese coast guard helicopter located the boat about 25 kilometers off the Noto peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture, after local fisherman tipped them off Monday morning.

The black wooden vessel was just seven to eight meters long and its sides bore Korean Hangul characters. It was carrying three men, three women and three children who are all thought to be related.

Local media said the transport ministry dispatched a coast guard plane and vessel to collect the suspected defectors.

The Japanese Jiji news agency quoted one of the nine as saying, “We are from the North” - an apparent reference to North Korea.

Meanwhile, coast guard officials were preparing to tow their boat back to port in the prefectural capital, Kanazawa, before questioning them. None of the purported defectors required medical attention.

Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, says one of the passengers had expressed a desire to go to South Korea. It also says that one of the men told coast guard officials he was a member of the Korean People’s Army and that the other eight people were his relatives.

Japan is an unusual destination for North Koreans hoping to flee repression and poverty in the communist state.

The boat’s discovery in Japanese waters has fueled speculation that it may have drifted east across the Japan Sea after the passengers failed to make landfall in South Korea. Most North Korea defectors cross the border into northeast China, before continuing on to South Korea, where they are eligible for government assistance.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry says more than 21,000 North Korean defectors have entered the South since the end of hostilities in the 1950-1953 Korean War.