North frees six, Seoul whisks them from view

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North frees six, Seoul whisks them from view

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Six South Koreans repatriated from North Korea yesterday are processed by immigration at the truce village of Panmunjom. The government blurred the men’s faces in the photo. Provided by Ministry of Unification

North Korea yesterday sent home six South Koreans through the truce village at the inter-Korean border.

But South Korea whisked them away without revealing who the six men were or what they were doing in the North.

The Ministry of Unification said yesterday that the government took custody of six South Korean men from the North around 4:50 p.m. at the truce village of Panmunjom. Red Cross officials from the two Koreas witnessed the repatriation, and South Korean immigration and customs officials processed them.

The South Korean government did not allow media coverage. “Because their identities were not yet confirmed, and because there could be a criminal suspect among them, we decided not to release their identities to protect human rights,” said a government official.

The six men were immediately sent to a safe house near Seoul. “They will first receive a medical checkup,” said an official. “And then they will face a joint interrogation by the National Intelligence Service, police and the military.”

How they ended up in the North and how long they stayed there are major questions, and the investigation will particularly focus on possible espionage activity by any of the men.

If the investigation concluded that they had voluntarily gone to the North, they can be charged with violating the National Security Law and face a punishment of up to 10 years in prison.

The North’s state media remained quiet about the repatriation as of 6 p.m. yesterday.

The North sent a surprise message Thursday through the inter-Korean Red Cross channel informing the South it would send back the six men. In the message, Pyongyang called them South Koreans who crossed the border to enter the North.

The Unification Ministry told the media Thursday the six men’s family names and their ages, which ranged from 27 to 67.

Four were believed to be South Korean citizens who entered the North three years ago. In a briefing yesterday morning, the Unification Ministry said it has no official record on how many South Koreans have entered the North voluntarily and stayed there.

It was the first time that the North sent home South Korean detainees through Panmunjom. Until the 1990s, the North kept the occasional South Korean defector and used them in propaganda, but Pyongyang made selective choices to keep only those who were deemed politically useful from the 2000s. They expelled the rest through a third country, usually China.

A man who defected to the North in 2002 after racking up credit card debt was deported to China. In contrast, Pyongyang kept Kim Gi-ho, who worked for the U.S. Forces Korea for 20 years and defected to the North in 2004.

BY LEE YOUNG-JONG, SER MYO-JA [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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