A group of 21 North Koreans, including children, were rescued after being found adrift on a boat in waters off South Korea's western coast and are seeking asylum, a South Korean coast guard official said on Saturday.
The coast guard official in the west port city of Incheon said a South Korean Navy vessel spotted a wooden boat carrying the 21 North Koreans earlier this week in waters about 38 kms south of the disputed western sea border between the two Koreas.
The North Koreans were handed over to the South Korean coast guard immediately and asked for asylum, the official said.
They have been under interrogation by a joint investigation team, the official said without elaborating further.
The Yonhap news agency said the five-tonne boat was found on Sunday, surrounded by Chinese fishing boats, indicating the North Koreans intended to hide from view of the North Korean coast guard.
According to Seoul officials, more than 20,000 North Koreans have defected to the South, fleeing chronic hunger and political repression in the impoverished North since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The rival Koreas are still technically at war after signing only an truce pact, not a peace treaty.
Fishing boats from both sides frequently drift over the Northern Limit Line (NLL), which is hard to pinpoint without sophisticated equipment.
(Reporting by Sung-Won Shim; Editing by Ed Lane)