South Korea said Thursday it will delay the repatriation of 27 North Koreans who had been set to cross the Yellow Sea border later in the day without four others who have defected here, citing a malfunction in the fishing boat
that was to carry them back home.
The Unification Ministry said in a message to reporters that the South Korean Red Cross notified its North Korean counterpart of the delay through the liaison officials of the two countries.
The two Koreas had agreed a day earlier to complete the repatriation of the North Koreans on Thursday afternoon. A ministry official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the engine on the fishing boat "was found to be malfunctioning this morning, making it impossible for the vessel to operate."
The engine was a replacement after the original one broke down when the boat strayed south on Feb. 5, carrying the 31 North Koreans across the tense western sea border, the official said.
Since then, four of them have defected, infuriating the North and prompting it to accuse the South of forcing them into defection. Seoul denies the charge.
North Korea backed down on its demand earlier this week, requesting the South to first send back the 27 wishing to return home, which ended the latest inter-Korean stalemate amid growing speculation the sides were seeking ways to resume talks.
The relations between the Koreas, which remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, hit the worst point in at least a decade when the North bombarded a South Korean island in November last year, killing four people.
The Unification Ministry official would not elaborate on the engine problem on the 5-ton wooden fishing boat, dismissing speculation that new defectors have emerged among the 27 North Koreans set to be repatriated.