Eight men claiming to be fishermen from North Korea were found in Akita Prefecture after their wooden boat broke down and drifted to a port, officials said Friday.
After being discovered late Thursday night at a marina, the men were immediately taken into custody at a police station in the city of Yurihonjo, said Yoshinobu Ito, deputy chief of Yurihonjo Police Station. The men identified themselves as North Korean fishermen and claimed that their boat went adrift after breaking down, Ito said.
Kyodo News, quoting investigative sources, reported that the boat’s engine stopped due to a malfunction.
The incident comes amid escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula as well as growing concerns in Japan over the prospect of the nation facing a massive influx of refugees fleeing a potential military conflict involving the isolated country.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump relisted the regime as a state sponsor of terrorism, a step that will allow Washington to impose even more sanctions, further fueling fears of Pyongyang resorting to military provocations.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in Tokyo he had been informed that the men appeared to be in good condition.
The top government spokesman said Tokyo will “carefully study” the possibility of the men being spies. The boat contained fishing equipment, but no suspicious items were found aboard, NHK quoted a police source as saying.
A senior government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he is increasingly convinced that the men were just fishermen. An examination of the boat, he said, has so far found no evidence directly linking them to any illegal activities, such as smuggling, he said.
If similar past cases are any indication, the men are likely to be returned to North Korea via China. When a man claiming to be of North Korean nationality was taken into custody near the coast of Ishikawa Prefecture in January 2015, immigration authorities arranged his trip to China, although the exact route he took is not known as no records were kept, an anonymous Justice Ministry official said.
The discovery of apparent North Korean fishing boats is a fairly frequent occurrence in Japan and doesn’t always rate as an urgent matter. According to the Japan Coast Guard, this year alone 43 wooden boats have been discovered in Japanese waters, including a number of badly damaged vessels. Most of the boats presumably hailed from the Korean Peninsula, judging from the Hangul characters written on them.
There were 66 such cases in 2016, 45 in 2015, 65 in 2014 and 80 in 2013, according to a coast guard official.
In 2015, 27 bodies were found in eight boats discovered drifting offshore or washed up along the coast between Hokkaido and Fukui Prefecture from October through December that year, according to a coast guard report. During examinations of each vessel, cigarette packets and life jackets on which Korean script was written were found, but the origin of the boats and the identity of the corpses was not confirmed.