South Korea repatriated 27 North Koreans to their communist state Sunday aboard their wooden boat, which had strayed across the western inter-Korean sea border 50 days ago.
Seoul did not repatriate the four people who expressed their intent to stay here, citing international humanitarian principles.
Two naval ships brought the 27 people close to Yeonpyeong Island, one of the northwestern islands near the Northern Limit Line, a de facto maritime border. They were then transferred to their five-ton fishing boat.
After the boat crossed the NLL at around 12:55 p.m., it was escorted by a North Korean military ship, according to the officials.
Due to the four wanting to defect here, Seoul had been caught in a tug of war with Pyongyang, which accused the South of coaxing them into defection and demanded that all 31 be sent back.
The North has even posted emotional videos on the internet featuring family members of the four, who are anxiously waiting for the return of their loved ones.
Abruptly softening its stance, the North agreed on the partial return of its people on March 15. Their return to the North ― scheduled for March 17 ― had been delayed due to bad weather as well as mechanical problems with their boat.
The four expressed their wish to stay here just before the investigation team wrapped up an inquiry into them early this month.
Among the four are the 38-year-old captain, a nurse and a statistical worker. Some observers presumed that the captain might have opted to defect to the South for fear of the possible punishment on his return.
The Seoul government concluded that the clam-fishing boat carrying 11 men and 20 women mistakenly crossed the sea border on Feb. 5 as fog hampered visibility.
Meanwhile, six North Koreans are being investigated after they crossed the sea border in the West Sea aboard a fishing boat from China last Thursday.
Three others found with the six on the boat were ethnic Koreans of Chinese nationality, officials said. Seoul plans to repatriate the three to China, they said.
The nine people from Dalian reportedly came to the South Korean territory with help from a religious group based in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province.
By Song Sang-ho (email@example.com)