Three sailors from North are repatriated

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Three sailors from North are repatriated

South Korea on Monday repatriated three North Korean sailors who crossed into the two countries’ eastern maritime border on a fishing boat, according to the Unification Ministry.

Seoul notified the North of its repatriation of the vessel and its three passengers through their liaison office in Kaesong Monday morning, and said the crew departed to return home via the eastern coast.

The boat crossed the Northern Limit Line (NLL) into South Korean waters late Saturday evening, and was captured by South Korean authorities shortly after, said the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During their interrogation, the sailors testified they had accidently crossed the NLL due to a “navigation error.”

While a white piece of clothing hanging from the boat’s mast fueled speculation the sailors intended to defect, they denied this in questioning.

The government found no evidence to support initial suspicions that the boat had links to the North’s military and could have been dispatched for espionage purposes, the Ministry of National Defense said at a regular briefing Monday.

The more likely explanation, given the range of fishing equipment and catch on the vessel during its seizure, may be that the crew crossed the NLL inadvertently in search of squid.

The sailors were allowed to sail back to the North in accordance with the government’s humanitarian principle of respecting the free will of any individuals from North Korea, said Lee Sang-min, the Unification Ministry’s spokesman. Pyongyang did not issue a response at the liaison office, he added. The interception of a North Korean vessel near the NLL is rare.

In similar previous circumstances, South Korean authorities instructed trespassers to turn back to the North at the scene rather than go through the process of bringing them into custody. In this case, the South’s military immediately launched patrol boats and even a nearby frigate to apprehend the vessel. The rapid response, with the boat’s capture coming only 57 minutes after it crossed the NLL, contrasts with a similar case from June 12, when a wooden North Korean boat carrying four people - two of whom eventually chose to defect to the South - sailed right past the South’s naval patrols and moored at a civilian harbor.

The incident sparked a major scandal for the military, which was blamed for allowing the security breach, and a subsequent Defense Ministry investigation resulted in punishment for several figures responsible for maritime surveillance.

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