Several bodies have been found on board a boat suspected of being from North Korea which was discovered on a small island in northern Japan.

The wrecked boat was found on Sado Island in Niigata prefecture on Friday, and the decomposing bodies were discovered on Saturday, a Japanese Coast Guard official said.

There were three bodies with heads, two heads without bodies and two bodies without heads – officially counted as seven bodies, the spokesman said. The five bodies for which gender could be confirmed were all male, he added.

Other details were not immediately available, but Japanese media reports said an investigation is under way into whether the boat was from North Korea, as Korean language items were found on board.

The area where the boat was discovered faces North Korea and is the region where such boats, dubbed “ghost ships” by the Japanese media, have been found in recent years, numbering about 100 each year.

North Korean shipping boats, which are usually poorly equipped, are believed to be under pressure to catch more fish for the nation’s food supply and are sailing further out to sea. Sometimes North Koreans are found alive on such boats and have been deported.

Japan and North Korea have no diplomatic ties. Japan has stepped up patrols in coastal areas to guard against poaching.

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