North Koreans waiting to return left in limbo

AP News
Posted: Mar 04, 2011 6:24 AM
North Koreans waiting to return left in limbo

Twenty-seven North Koreans whose boat drifted into southern waters were left in limbo Friday after North Korean officials did not show up at a border village to bring them home.

The North initially asked South Korean liaison officials in a phone call to wait for further communication but provided no other details about its intentions. It earlier reacted with fury when the South said four other members of the group wanted to stay in South Korea.

Sunny Yoo, a spokeswoman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, said late Friday that the two sides agreed to discuss the repatriation issue again on Monday. She had no other details.

The ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, earlier said 18 women and nine men from the boat were waiting near the village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.

About a month ago, South Korea found 31 North Koreans aboard a small boat that had drifted across the countries' western sea border. North Korea said they were gathering shellfish when they were surrounded by dense fog.

Seoul said four of the people on board, including the captain, said they wanted to stay in South Korea.

The North's Red Cross Society said South Korea should immediately return all the North Koreans. It accused the South of pressuring them "to remain in South Korea by appeasement, deception and threat," which it called a "grave provocation."

South Korea denied coercing the North Koreans.

More than 20,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea, mostly through China, since the end of the Korean War in 1953, with defections surging in recent years amid economic hardship in the North. South Korean policy is to accept those who choose to defect and to repatriate those who wish to return home.

The standoff comes as North Korea is lashing out against the South over the start this week of annual South Korea-U.S. military exercises. North Korea calls the drills a rehearsal for invasion.

The Koreas' relations plunged last year over the sinking of a South Korean warship and North Korea's shelling of a front-line South Korean island. A total of 50 South Koreans died.

The Korean peninsula officially remains in state of war because the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.


Associated Press writer Kelly Olsen contributed to this report.