Six drifting fishermen to be sent back to North

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Six drifting fishermen to be sent back to North

Six North Korean fishermen who drifted into South Korea’s East Sea in two broken boats last week will be repatriated this morning after expressing their desire to go home, a Unification Ministry official said Tuesday.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said an interrogation of the six men concluded they hadn’t intended to spy and were healthy enough to make the sea journey home.

South Korea usually allows North Koreans to stay if they successfully pass interrogation and seek asylum.

The North Korean sailors are scheduled to board one of the two boats and cross the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border separating the two Koreas, today under the guidance of local authorities.

The second boat is irrepairable. The official said it had capsized by the time South Korea’s Coast Guard arrived on the scene last Saturday to rescue the sailors. The first boat was repaired.

The Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korea relations, tried to contact the North Korean government several times through military communication hotlines and the truce village of Panmunjom to inform them about the repatriation but has yet to receive a response, the official said.

If Pyongyang keeps ignoring Seoul’s call, the ministry said it would inform Pyongyang about its plan to send the sailors home via loudspeakers in Panmunjom and written statements via the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission, which supervises the Korean Armistice Agreement.

North Korea cut off direct communications with the South in February 2016 after Seoul’s decision to suspend operations of the jointly-run Kaesong Industrial Complex in response to Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test that January and a subsequent long-range ballistic missile launch.

The six fishermen will be allowed to cross the Northern Limit Line regardless of whether Pyongyang responds to Seoul’s messages, said the Unification Ministry official.

Pyongyang’s refusal to pick up the phone comes at a time when South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has promised a new approach to North Korea that condemns its nuclear and missile developments while engaging in bilateral dialogue.

Moon emphasized that the restoration of inter-Korea communication channels would be one of his top priorities.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, JEONG YONG-SOO [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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