6 Nov 2011

Boatload of North Koreans want to defect

6:04 am on 6 November 2011

A group of North Koreans has been found adrift in a boat in the Yellow Sea off the coast of South Korea. Members of the group say they want to defect.

In a statement the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the 21 North Koreans were found in a five-tonne wooden boat by a South Korean Navy vessel in the Yellow Sea on Sunday. Earlier reports said they were found Tuesday.

They were then taken by patrol boat to the port of Incheon, where the group, which includes nine children, expressed a desire to defect.

The ABC reports it was not immediately clear why the the news was withheld for six days.

Saturday's announcement was the fourth occasion this year that North Korean defectors have reached South Korea by crossing the Yellow Sea.

Hundreds of North Koreans flee their impoverished homeland every year, most escaping over the land border into China.

China normally returns fugitives from the North even though they could face harsh punishment.

Seoul's policy is to accept all North Koreans who wish to stay in the South, while repatriating those who stray across the sea border by accident.

In February, a boatload of 31 North Koreans arrived in South Korea after their boat drifted across the Yellow Sea border in thick fog, possibly unintentionally.

Seoul returned 27 of the 31 people on board but refused to hand over the other four, saying they had freely chosen to stay in the South.

Nine North Korean refugees, including three children, were picked up by Japan's coastguard in September. They arrived in South Korea last month.

Two North Koreans were also admitted to the South last month after they were found adrift in a small boat off the east coast.