Thu, May 03, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Four North Koreans defect to south in little wooden boat

AP AND AFP , SEOUL

A group of four North Korean defectors has crossed the tense maritime border in a small wooden boat to reach South Korea, intelligence sources said yesterday.

The four were spotted on Saturday near the South's frontline Yeonpyong island in the Yellow Sea and were being questioned.

The National Intelligence Service refused to comment on news reports of the incident, but intelligence sources confirmed the defection to reporters.

"We cannot comment on the details for the safety of their families left behind in the North," one source said.

Chosun Ilbo newspaper said they were found on the tiny boat with two diving suits, snorkel masks and a 100m long oxygen hose. It gave no explanation for the equipment.

A group of five North Koreans, four of them from one family, defected in March last year to South Korea after crossing the sea border in the East Sea.

Chosun, quoting a government source, said relatives of the five left behind in the North had been purged after news reports of their defection.

Thousands of North Koreans have tried to flee poverty and repression to the wealthier South. But defections across the heavily guarded inter-Korean border are rare, with people usually opting to flee via China.

Meanwhile, North Korea yesterday agreed to meet South Korea for military talks aimed at approving security arrangements for historic test runs of trains across their heavily armed border, the South's Defense Ministry said.

Although Seoul originally proposed that the talks should take place this week in the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, the North said it would prefer if they could be scheduled for three days starting next Tuesday, according to the ministry.

The North also proposed upgrading the rank of the negotiators to generals. The South had proposed a meeting of working-level officers.

South Korea will say if it accepts the proposal after internal consultations.

The meeting would be the first military contact between the two sides in nearly a year.

Trains have not crossed the border in more than 50 years, and the South has yet to win approval from the North Korean military for security arrangements for the rail tests.

The two sides agreed during economic talks last month to conduct the rail tests on May 17, but that accord lacked consent from the North's military.

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