South Korea yesterday tried to repatriate 27 North Koreans whose boat drifted across the border, but the North refused to accept them amid a row about four others who chose to stay behind, officials said.
The incident could further fuel heightened cross-border tensions, as US and South Korean troops stage major military exercises that the North has branded a rehearsal for invasion.
The 20 men and 11 women were in a fishing boat that crossed the tense Yellow Sea border in thick fog on Feb. 5.
Seoul said on Thursday that two men and two women had chosen to stay in the South — a claim rejected by Pyongyang, which said all 31 wanted to come home.
An attempt to send the 27 home through the frontier village on Panmunjom at 11am failed when no North Korean officials turned out to meet them, the South’s unification ministry said.
“We are still waiting for North Korea’s response, but we cannot wait forever,” spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.
“We will make a decision if North Korea keeps silent,” she said.
Pyongyang late on Thursday repeated demands that Seoul return all 31, rejecting assertions that four of them want to stay in the South.
In a statement on the official news agency, it accused the South of “despicable unethical acts” and said the group had been held hostage in a bid to fuel cross-border confrontation.
It said their boat had drifted in fog and all those on board had demanded they be sent home, but Seoul had pressured them to remain in the South “by appeasement, deception and threat.”
“This cannot be interpreted otherwise than a grave provocation to the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea],” a statement attributed to the North’s Red Cross said.
Seoul’s Unification Minister Hyun In-taek told parliament the four had not been forced to stay.
“We made a decision after respecting their free will,” he said.
Won Sei-hoon, the South’s spy agency chief, told legislators separately that Seoul would not change its position “whatever North Korea may say.”
The four are the 38-year-old boat captain, a 44-year-old jobless man, a 21-year-old nurse and a 22-year-old female statistician.
The captain apparently feared punishment if sent back and decided to stay when he saw how different life in the South is, Chosun Ilbo newspaper said.
Security officials reportedly took the North Koreans on a tour of Seoul and showed them videos of the South’s affluence.
“Relations could be strained further [by the defections],” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
He said the North could launch fresh provocations if Seoul continues to maintain its tough stance against Pyongyang.
“Nevertheless, I don’t think there will be any immediate military action by North Korea just over this case for a while,” he said, adding that Pyongyang was desperate to improve ties with Washington in return for food and economic assistance.
The South normally returns North Koreans who drift across the border by accident and who express a wish to go home. Those who wish to stay have an automatic right to live in the South.
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