South Korea sends 27 North Koreans home

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea repatriated on Sunday 27 North Koreans whose boat drifted into the South’s waters last month, the South’s Red Cross said, ending a row which threatened to further damage relations between the two Koreas.

Four North Koreans who had also been aboard the fishing boat decided to stay in the South, prompting the diplomatic dispute.

The North Koreans were sent home across the disputed western sea border a day after the first anniversary of the sinking of a South Korean warship near the border, an incident which seriously escalated tensions.

The group was placed aboard a South Korean naval vessel and then, near the border, transferred onto the wooden fishing boat on which they made their way into the South’s waters. The Red Cross said a North Korean patrol ship escorted the boat once it crossed the sea border.

The fishing boat, with 31 North Koreans aboard, had been sailing south off the peninsula’s west coast when it entered South Korean territory.

After the four passengers decided to defect, authorities in the North accused Seoul of forcing them to remain against their will.

Both sides, technically still at war as the 1950-53 Korean war only ended with a truce, not a peace treaty, later agreed to the repatriation of the 27. But their return had been postponed by weather conditions and technical problems with the boat.

Inter-Korean relations sank to their lowest level in decades last year after the sinking in March of the Cheonan, blamed by Seoul on the North, and the North’s shelling of an island near the sea border.

The North denies any involvement in the sinking of the naval vessel and says the shelling incident was prompted by South Korean behavior during a military exercise.

Both North and South Korea have since renewed calls for dialogue. But a first attempt at talks broke down in February, dealing a setback to plans to resume international disarmament talks with the North.

(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Ron Popeski)

South Korea sends 27 North Koreans home