Four North Korean defectors who made a rare escape to Japan in a wooden boat were moved to an immigration facility near Tokyo, reports said yesterday, bringing the family a step closer to possible freedom in South Korea.
The group — a mother, father and their two adult sons — arrived in northern Japan on Saturday after a six-day voyage in the roofless boat, capturing nationwide headlines in a country long at odds with communist North Korea over its weapons programs and human rights record.
It is the first time in two decades that North Korean defectors made it to Japan by boat.
The family told police investigators they fled to escape extreme poverty, and requested asylum in South Korea.
The four were taken yesterday from protective custody in a police station in the northern city of Goshogawara to an immigration facility in Ushiku, northeast of Tokyo, by helicopter, Kyodo News agency said, citing unidentified officials.
Public broadcaster NHK ran a similar report.
Katsumi Takaya, a Goshogawara police officer, confirmed the four had left for an airport but refused to say where they were going, citing security concerns.
The Japanese government plans to allow the four to leave for South Korea and will make arrangements with South Korean officials for their departure, NHK said.
Seoul has indicated it will accept them.
Japan's Immigration Bureau could not immediately comment on the reports. Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the government's top spokesman, also refused to comment, citing safety reasons.
The North Koreans left North Korea's northeastern port of Chongjin last Sunday in a 7.3m-long wooden boat, planning to head directly to South Korea. But they changed their route and headed across the Sea of Japan to Japan, fearing tight security near the border between the two Koreas.
Thousands of North Koreans have fled their isolated homeland to escape poverty and political oppression in recent years, often by land through China and Southeast Asia.
Over 10,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953. More than 130 people who have fled North Korea through third countries are currently in Japan.
In 1987, 11 crew members of a North Korean ship arrived at a port in western Japan and later defected to South Korea via Taiwan.
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