Published : 2013-10-25 21:09
Updated : 2013-10-25 21:16
North Korea handed over six South Korean citizens and the body of a South Korean female at the neutral border village of Panmunjom Friday, a move that has raised speculation that the country may be trying to mend fences with its southern rival.
The Ministry of Unification said that the six men crossed over into South Korea at 4:50 p.m. and will be questioned by authorities to determine how they entered the communist country.
In addition, the North also handed over the body of a South Korean woman via the truce village, along with the six, the ministry said.
"According to the North, the woman is the wife of one of the six men, and was killed by her husband in the North," a ministry official said.
The North explained that the quarrel between them had led to the homicide, but a probe into the case is needed, the official added.
No media was allowed to witness the arrival of the South Koreans, with authorities saying they will be given a medical checkup and taken to an undisclosed secure location to be questioned.
"Seoul has verified overnight that all six are citizens, but because the North claimed they voluntarily crossed over into the North, it has been determined that their actual names will not be released for now," said ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do. Releasing names of people who may face criminal charges could raise legal issues, he added.
If they willingly entered North Korea without getting prior approval from the government, they can be prosecuted for violating the National Security Law.
The ministry in charge of managing inter-Korean affairs already said Thursday, when the North announced it would send the six back, that the people to return home were not on its list of people abducted by the North.
It said the oldest, who is 67, has been identified by his surname Yun, while the youngest, named Song, is 27. Others are in their 40s and 50s.
Kim added that while there has been some criticism over Seoul's ability to keep track of its citizens staying overseas, it is impossible to know everyone's location.
"The government just does not keep data on people who may have entered the North without permission," he said, hinting that the only way to know for certain is if the North announces it has someone in custody.
Related to the return, another government source said that none seem to be "notable figures" and that it is highly likely that they entered the country over the Chinese-North Korean border.
The North's media reported on Feb. 26, 2010 that it was questioning four South Koreans who entered the country illegally, while there was a separate report that one man entered the North a month earlier by crossing the Tumen River from China's Yanbian region.
"The men who are coming home may be the same as the ones mentioned in 2010, but because the North never identified those people by name at the time, there is no way to tell for certain until they are questioned," he said.
Pyongyang was not forthcoming with information about the people it held, although it acknowledged the country was holding several South Koreans.
Regardless of whether the six went to North Korea voluntarily, the unification ministry said it welcomed the North's decision to send back the South Korean citizens. It said such a move was a "humanitarian" gesture.
This view was echoed by political parties, with the opposition urging Seoul to use the development to engage the North in a new round of talks.
Local North Korean watchers also said that the fact the North is sending people they held for some time is a sign of positive change and may even lead to Pyongyang making other proposals.
"As a follow-up to the return of the six men, the North could call for family reunions that they postponed, and propose talks to restart tours to the Mount Kumgang resort," a researcher at a state-run think tank speculated. (Yonhap News)