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Minister Shinzo Abe suggested Sunday he is willing to grant the desire of four people believed to be North Korean defectors to go to South Korea, while Seoul indicated it’s ready to accept them.

The suspected North Korean defectors arrived in a small boat Saturday in Aomori Prefecture.

“I pledge to deal with the issue from a humanitarian viewpoint,” Abe said in a speech on a street in Tokyo. “Japan is a country that protects freedom and respects human rights.”

South Korean Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Song Min Soon said his country would be ready to accept the four, believed to all be from the same family, if that is their wish.

South Korea will deal with the issue according to humanitarian principles and the four people’s will, Song said on the resort island of Jeju. He is visiting the island to hold talks with his Japanese and Chinese counterparts.

The four refugees told police after being found on their wooden boat at Fukaura port that they intended to go to the city of Niigata, according to police sources.

The man in his late 50s, his wife in her early 60s and their two sons, one in his late 20s and the other in his 30s, had initially tried to go to South Korea but gave up on that plan due to tight security and instead decided to head for the city of Niigata, the sources said.

Niigata is well known in North Korea as a port served by the cargo-passenger ferry Mangyongbong-92.

Fukaura, a town also facing the Sea of Japan, is about 350 km north of Niigata. The government has banned port calls by the Mangyongbong-92, which had been the only direct passenger link between the two countries, following a series of North Korean ballistic missile launches into the Sea of Japan last July.

Speaking in Korean, the four told the Aomori Prefectural Police that they left from a port near the northeastern city of Chongjin on May 27, the sources said.

The weather was bad for the first four days and they had to cling to the boat to stay aboard, they were quoted as saying.

They also told the police that they have no acquaintances in Japan, according to the sources.

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