SEOUL (Reuters) - The families of four North Koreans who have said they want to defect to the South have made emotional appeals for their kin to return home in videos aired on a state website, the South's Yonhap news agency reported.
A row over the fate of 31 North Koreans who drifted into South Korean waters aboard a fishing vessel last month has further dented relations between the rivals, already at their lowest level in years after two deadly attacks last year.
"Daddy, I want to see you. Return quickly," Hong Ji-hyang, believed to be the daughter of a 44-year-old defector, said in an interview aired on the North Korean website www.uriminzokkiri.com, according to Yonhap news agency.
The site is operated by the reclusive North's propaganda agency. Reuters was unable to download the video from the site.
The South repeated on Wednesday that the "will of the four individuals must be respected" and they can stay, but the North says they are being forced to defect against their will.
Pyongyang has demanded Seoul bring the four people to the border to be interviewed and to meet their family, but the South has refused.
The North has also refused to allow the other 27 back, saying they must all be returned at the same time.
Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have fled the state as its troubled economy has been made worse by years of Pyongyang's bungled policies and sanctions imposed to punish it for rattling regional security, rights groups have said.
Most people who flee the country typically cross a narrow river from a northeastern province into China, where they then seek passage to a third country for their asylum bids.
China considers them economic refugees and forcibly repatriates them. Once back, the North Koreans face prison, where torture is common and the chance of death is high due to the brutal conditions, human rights workers said.
DEFECTION OR ABDUCTION?
Tensions between the two Koreas have been running high for a couple of years due to a number of deadly attacks blamed on the North and the South's decision to sever economic links to try to force Pyongyang to denuclearize.
An attempt to restart inter-Korean dialogue broke down in February. Both the North and South have since renewed calls for dialogue. Regional powers have nudged the rivals to defuse the crisis and restart international talks over the North's nuclear program.
Last month the fishing boat carrying the 31 North Koreans was spotted drifting near Yeonpyeong island, which lies just 11 km (7 miles) from the North's soil and was bombarded in November by North Korean artillery, killing four people.
"The South Korean puppets are detaining my daughter who drifted in bad weather," said Kim Ok-jin, saying she was the mother of a 22-year-old defector, according to the Yonhap report.
In another interview apparently involving the family of the 38-year-old skipper, the North Korean website quoted a woman who appeared to be his sister-in-law as saying that she was "speechless and mortified".
The North's Red Cross issued another notice to the South on Wednesday to bring the four people to the truce village of Panmunjom on their heavily fortified border to be interviewed.
"The notice held that its refusal to arrange the face-to-face confirmation of the four persons proves that the expression of the 'will to defect' touted by the authorities of the south side is a sheer fabrication and is nothing but allurement and abduction," the KCNA state news agency reported.
(Reporting by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)