Pyongyang to repatriate six men

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Pyongyang to repatriate six men

North Korea is today repatriating six South Koreans it has held for the past two-and-a-half years, another sign of improving relations.

It abruptly notified Seoul of the repatriations yesterday and provided the surnames and ages of the six men. How and why they ended up in North Korea in the first place is unclear, although four were believed to be the subjects of earlier negotiations after they went to the North in 2010, reportedly voluntarily.

“Today, through a notice in the name of the head of the North Korean Red Cross, North Korea notified us that it would repatriate six South Korean nationals who have been detained in the North tomorrow afternoon [today] through Panmunjom,” South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said in a press release yesterday.

North Korea gave the South information on the six men’s occupations and addresses in the South, but that information was not released to the press, according to an official with the Unification Ministry.

On Feb. 26, 2010, North Korea’s official media outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, reported that “the relevant organization recently held four people coming from South Korea who illegally entered our country, and they are under investigation.”

Citing that article, the Unification Ministry assumed yesterday that those four would be among the six men repatriated.

“After the report, the government requested several times the identifications of the four people, but North Korea did not respond,” the ministry said in the press release. “Although it comes late, it is fortunate that North Korea has decided on such a humanitarian measure now.”

The government said it has checked the identification of the six and described them as men surnamed Kim, 44; Song, 27; Yun, 67; Lee, 65; Jeong, 43; and Hwang, 56. They were not fishermen, according to the Unification Ministry.

A Unification Ministry official told reporters yesterday that four people voluntarily went to the North in 2010 and the other two went later. When asked why North Korea made the sudden decision to repatriate the men, the official said, “We did not figure out the exact reason yet.”

On March 2, 2012, at a low-level meeting with the North, officials from South Korea requested information on the four men missing since 2010. But Northern officials said they were still under investigation.

Last June 5, North Korea’s Red Cross said in a statement that: “In our country, there are several South Korean people who illegally crossed the border and got detained. But the South Korean government apparently abandoned them, without making a single remark about them.”

The notice of the repatriation came hours after North Korea abruptly okayed a visit by a group of South Korean lawmakers to the Kaesong Industrial Complex. They are members of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee.

BY KIM HEE-JIN [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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