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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Two of four North Korean sailors rescued by the South Korean authorities last week have decided to defect, Seoul’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) announced on Tuesday.
The men’s ship was discovered drifting south of the inter-Korean maritime border on Saturday, and was discovered by a South Korean fishing boat at 0650 local time.
The North Korean vessel was found in the vicinity of the Samcheok port, some 150 kilometers south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL).
“Of their own volition, two expressed their will to defect to South Korea and the two others to… return home,” an MOU official who wished to remain anonymous told media in a closed-door briefing.
“Our side handed over the two crewmen who expressed their intention to return at 1000 local time through the Panmunjom,” they added.
The fishermen were interrogated by the relevant authorities after being rescued, with MOU spokesperson Lee Sang-min during a regular briefing on Monday morning declining to comment when asked if any of the men intended to stay in the South.
Investigation and consultation between relevant organizations was ongoing, he said.
In contrast with Lee’s comments, Seoul was today revealed to have informed Pyongyang on Monday morning through the communications channel at the joint liaison office that it had found the North Korean ship and sailors and its plans to repatriate them.
The North responded to the notification late in the afternoon, the unification ministry said, while declining to share further details on the dialogue between the two sides.
When asked whether Pyongyang had requested to send over the two crewmen who had expressed a desire to defect, the MOU official said the two men’s “free will is the most important” and stressed Seoul’s commitment to humanitarian principles.
Samcheok port, near where the North Korean vessel was found I Google Map
The North has previously shown mixed reactions to the defection of fisherman who have been rescued in South Korean waters.
June last year saw Pyongyang remain silent in response to the decision of North Korean sailor to defect.
Three years prior, however, the DPRK denounced the-then Park Geun-hye administration for its decision to allow three North Korean sailors who had expressed a desire to defect to stay in the South.
In a statement under the name of a spokesman for the Central Committee of the DPRK Red Cross Society in July 2015, North Korea accused the South Korean government of committing a “crime against humanity” by “detaining three of five DPRK citizens who were adrift in the East Sea of Korea by accident.”
2011, too, saw tensions between the two Koreas rise following the decision of four out of a crew of 31 rescued North Koreans to stay in the South, with the North denouncing the move as a “grave provocation.”
Several of the North Koreans who were repatriated then held a news conference in which they claimed that they had been abducted by the South Korean government and pressured into defecting.
Saturday’s rescue of the North Korean ship has also raised questions in South Korea about national security, with some asking how the boat was able to travel so far south of the NLL while going undetected by the ROK navy.
Monday saw a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) announce that an investigation into the issue had showed there was “no problem with the overall maritime and coast guard operations.”
“But we confirmed that there is a limitation to detect small sized ships and wooden vessel,” Kim Joon-rak told media during a regular briefing.
“Our military will be on full alert and maintain a surveillance posture while coming up with.”
Saturday’s case was also notable for being the second of its kind in the last week, with the ROK navy having on June 11 discovered a vessel carrying six North Koreans in the vicinity of Sokcho, five kilometers south of the NLL.
The sailors expressed their intention to return home, the JCS said, and the North reportedly requested South Korean help with the vessel’s rescue.
In accordance with the spirit of September’s inter-Korean military agreement and in consideration of humanitarian issues, the South said, a South Korean naval vessel transported the North Korean ship to the NLL and handed it over.
Edited by Oliver Hotham