TOKYO, Japan — There has been an early, and unexpected, agreement between Japan and the new regime in Pyongyang over the fate of a group of North Koreans found in Japanese waters at the end of last week.
Japan's coastguard found them drifting near the island of Oki in the Japan Sea on Friday. One of the four had died at sea.
"Four of us set off from a North Korean port," the coast guard quoted one of the men as saying. "The one who died got gradually worn out and died several days ago."
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They began their return home on Monday, via Beijing, after Japan and the North, which do not have diplomatic ties, talked through their embassies in the Chinese capital over the weekend. The body of the dead man is being kept at a coast guard facility in Japan.
At first it appeared that the men had made the perilous journey in an attempt to flee the North, where aid groups have warned of starvation this winter.
But Japanese media reported that the men, who have not been named, had begun to drift after their 7-meter-long boat experienced engine trouble while they were out fishing. They had run out of food when they were found, and the boat's water and oil tanks were empty.
Last September, nine North Koreans — three men, three women and three children — were found aboard a wooden boat floating off Japan's coast and sent to South Korea after they said they wanted to defect.
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Japan is a not the preferred destination for North Koreans hoping to flee repression and poverty. There have been just two other recorded cases since the late 1980s. Most cross the border into China or drift across the Yellow Sea maritime border dividing North and South Korea.
According to the Unification Ministry in Seoul, more than 21,000 North Korean defectors have entered the South since the end of the 1950-1953 Korean war.