Tokyo (CNN)Twenty-six North Koreans have been handed over to a North Korean tanker after being pulled from a sinking cargo ship off the coast of Japan late Wednesday.
The Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) went to the rescue after receiving a distress signal from the ship, which had run into difficulties off Japan's Kyushu Prefecture, 38 miles (61 kilometers) southwest of the Goto Islands, a spokesman said.
The crew members spent a short time in Japanese custody before being collected by a tanker to take them back to North Korea.
The ship's crew members had evacuated and were on life boats when the Japanese Coast Guard reached them.
In the early hours of Thursday, the sinking ship began drifting closer to the Goto Islands, coming within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the coast before it was completely submerged.
All crew members are safe and uninjured, the JCG spokesman said.
A 6,558 ton cargo ship, the Chong Gen was transporting more than five thousand tons of rice from Nampo port on North Korea's west coast, to Wongsan in the east, according to the JCG, which is questioning crew members.
The JCG said this may be the first ever time that large numbers of North Korean ship crew members have been rescued by Japanese authorities.
Japan does not have formal diplomatic relations with North Korea.
The vessels, all of which had dead and decaying bodies inside, are believed to have originated in North Korea.