Japan deports stranded North Korean boat crew

TOKYO: Eight North Koreans rescued from a boat adrift near an island in northern Japan last year were deported home via China on Friday, an immigration official told AFP.

The eight men were part of a group of 10 North Korean "fishermen" spotted aboard a tiny wooden boat struggling in bad weather last November.

They are to return to North Korea from a Hokkaido airport via Beijing, a spokeswoman for the Sapporo Regional Immigration Bureau told AFP.

Two other crew members remain in Japan, one of them in the hospital with tuberculosis and the other, the boat's 45-year-old skipper, facing charges of theft, she added.

The captain was arrested and indicted last year for stealing a power generator from a local fishery cooperatives facility on the island, part of Hokkaido -- the northernmost of Japan's four main islands.

According to the indictment, the captain took the lead in stealing some 40 items ranging from home appliances to solar panels worth 5.65 million yen ($45,000), public broadcaster NHK said, adding that he will stand trial in a Japanese court.

Dozens of North Korean fishing vessels have washed up on Japan's coast in recent years, with the number hitting a record 104 in 2017, up from 66 the previous year, according to the Japanese coastguard.

Experts say some North Korean fishermen are travelling further out to sea in order to satisfy government mandates for bigger catches.

But their old and poorly equipped vessels are prone to mechanical and other problems, including running out of fuel, and there are few ways for them to call for rescue.

Some of the boats wash up on Japanese shores with the crew on board dead, a phenomenon referred to by the local media as "ghost ships." — AFP