TOKYO (AP) — Japan on Thursday handed over three North Korean crew members who were rescued from a capsized fishing boat to a North Korean vessel that will return them home, officials said.
The three men were rescued by Japan's coast guard on Wednesday while floating on the small wooden vessel off the northern coast of the Noto Peninsula, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.
The men expressed their wish to return home while interviewed on a Japanese coast guard boat and were handed over later Thursday to another North Korean fishing vessel at sea, said coast guard spokesman Satoru Nanjo.
Coast guard rescuers are still searching for their fellow crew members believed to be missing.
The three told Japanese officials they came with 12 other crew members from North Korea to fish and their boat capsized just as they were heading home, Nanjo said.
The area, about 360 kilometers (216 miles) north of the peninsula, is in waters where Japan's exclusive economic zone overlaps with those of neighboring countries. It's a rich fishing ground where poachers from North Korea and China have been spotted.
Japan and North Korea have no diplomatic ties. The incident comes as Japan steps up pressure on the North over Pyongyang's missile and nuclear threats.
Boats believed to be from North Korea often wash up on Japan's northern coast during the winter because of the seasonal wind from the northwest. Three North Korean boats with 10 bodies inside washed up on the peninsula in 2015.
This year, 13 cases of wreckages were reported in three northern prefectures facing the Sea of Japan, but no bodies have been found, according to the coast guard.