Nine North Koreans who crossed the tense western sea border on a small engineless vessel over the weekend for apparent defection are being questioned by South Korean officials, the Seoul government said Wednesday.
The nine people, including family members, arrived on a frontline South Korean island around 6 a.m. Saturday, and are seeking asylum in the wealthier South, a government source said on condition of anonymity.
The purported defectors ― consisting of three male and two female adults, and four children ― are currently being questioned by Seoul’s intelligence and military officials about the purpose and means of their escape from the North to the South, he added.
Their apparent defection comes about four months after 31 North Koreans crossed the same sea border. Four asked to remain in the South while 27 returned to the North saying their boat had accidently drifted into the South Korean waters.
The communist North, which reacts sensitively to the defection of its people, had accused South Korea of influencing the decision by the four nationals, asking to meet with them face-to-face to verify whether they really wished to stay in the South. Seoul had declined the request.
South Korea has remained firm about keeping all asylum seekers in its territory and protecting them from the ironfisted North Korean regime, citing international practice and humanitarian reasons.
Despite harsh punishment for defection, a growing number of North Koreans have been fleeing to the wealthier South, indicating the deepening food shortages and instability in the communist state.
More than 20,000 North Koreans are said to have defected since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a temporary armistice.
North Korean defectors are seen as another possible source of tension between the two Koreas after their most recent exchange of fire in November.
Pyongyang, which had been stepping up efforts to engage South Korea in talks, has been upping a hostile rhetoric in recent weeks, threatening military attacks and suspension of all communication.
By Shin Hae-in (firstname.lastname@example.org