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North Korean crew members arrested in Japan after items vanish

Japanese police on Saturday arrested three North Korean crew members for suspected theft, a spokesman said, amid a fresh wave of North Korean "ghost ship" fishing vessels washing up in Japanese waters.

The three were among the 10 North Korean "fishermen" spotted aboard a tiny wooden boat struggling in bad weather off the northern island of Hokkaido late last month.

The 45-year-old captain and two other crew members, who all identified themselves as North Korean nationals, were arrested on suspicion of stealing a power generator, a Hokkaido Police Department spokesman said.

The arrest came after some of them reportedly admitted to "taking out" some electronic products from a remote Japanese island where they landed briefly to take refuge.

Soon after the group left, officials noticed items -- TV sets, fridges, a washing machine, a motorbike, an electric saw -- had vanished from buildings on the island, local media said.

The list of items that had disappeared also included some of the solar panels at the lighthouse on the island, an anime poster and blankets.

Japanese authorities were questioning them after towing the boat to waters near Hakodate port, southern Hokkaido, but they tried in vain to flee on Friday.

Television footage showed a dozen police officers hauling the crew members from the boat anchored at the port as they tried to resist arrest in light snow. Investigators raided the boat, unloading machines and electronic items.

The remaining seven crew members, including one in hospital, will be sent to Japan's immigration office, public broadcaster NHK reported.

Dozens of North Korean fishing vessels wash up on Japan's coast every year, but last month Japanese coastguards registered 28 cases, the highest monthly figure since records began in 2014.

A record number of North Korean fishermen have been rescued alive -- 42 this year compared to zero in 2016 -- but there are still cases of "ghost ships" packed full of bodies, with 18 corpses recovered so far this year.

Experts say some North Korean fishermen are travelling far out to sea in order to satisfy government mandates for bigger catches.

But their old and poorly equipped vessels are prone to mechanical and other problems, including running out of fuel, and there are few ways for them to call for rescue. (AFP)