North Korean fishing boats have been found near the coast of Japan. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo
Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Six North Korean men who had drifted into Japanese waters were repatriated on Friday by Japanese authorities, using a route that goes through China, according to reports.
All six North Koreans were found in a "state of distress" in the Sea of Japan near the coast of Aomori and Shimane Prefectures in January, the Sankei Shimbun reported.
On Friday, they were processed at Nagasaki Prefecture's Omura Immigration Center, then departed for a flight to China from Nagasaki Airport, according to the report.
The North Koreans were returned to their country because all six people expressed a desire to return, Japanese authorities said.
Repatriation of North Koreans to their country of origin has caused controversy in the past. Human rights groups have said people repatriated by China, after leaving without permission, can be sentenced to more than two years of forced labor in prison camps. It is unclear which measures will be applied to the North Koreans who "volunteered" to return on Friday.
The six men were on different boats, at different times, when they were taken into custody. Four of the seamen were on a wooden boat near Oki Island in Shimane Prefecture when they were taken in on Jan. 8, and two men were found on Jan. 13 near the coast of Fukaura in Aomori Prefecture, according to the Sankei.
The North Koreans are being returned at a time when Japan is seeking greater security cooperation with China.
Jiji Press and the Nikkei reported Friday Takeo Mori, Japanese senior deputy foreign minister, and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou, met for a bilateral security dialogue.
The two officials agreed to pursue security relations that will improve ties between the two countries, according to reports.
Dispute over islands and Chinese activity in the East China Sea have caused tensions.