TOKYO, January 6, 2012 (AFP) - Japan's coastguard said Friday they had found three people adrift in a small boat off the country's west coast with media reporting they are likely to be North Korean defectors.
"We confirmed three people were on board," a spokesman at the Japan Coast Guard said, adding their vessel was drifting about one kilometre (half a mile) off the western Japanese island of Oki.
Korean script was visible on the small wooden boat, the official said, while noting the agency had not confirmed where the three had come from. No further details were available immediately.
Jiji Press news agency and other media said they are believed to be North Koreans.
The three may be the first defectors from North Korea reaching Japan since the death of Kim Jong-Il in December.
The death of the leader in the reclusive state has sparked fears of an influx of refugees although Japan places tight restrictions on immigrants and asylum-seekers.
The bulk of would-be refugees from North Korea cross first into China in a bid to escape the repression, poverty and food shortages of the isolated communist state.
Many then travel on to South Korea, where around 21,000 have arrived since the end of the 1950-1953 war.
Nine North Koreans -- three men, three women and three children -- were picked up by Japan's coastguard in September after spending five days at sea in a rare seaborne defection.
They then travelled to South Korea to settle there.