South Korea rejected North Korea's demand that Seoul hand over all three North Koreans picked up from a fishing boat drifting off South Korea's east coast, an official said Monday, a move that could anger the North amid tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The three men, who are in their 20s and 30s, were picked up by a South Korean coast guard vessel near Ulleung Island on Saturday after their ship ran adrift.
South Korea said two of the three North Koreans expressed their wish to remain in South Korea while the other man said he wanted to go back to his communist homeland.
"We will handle the two people by respecting their wish on humanitarian grounds," said the unification ministry, underscoring South Korea's long-standing policy of accepting North Koreans who want to stay in South Korea.
The ministry, which is in charge of relations with North Korea, also said it will hand over the third man to the North on Tuesday afternoon via Panmunjom, a neutral village on the inter-Korean border.
Official sources said the three are from a fishing cooperative and sailed out of Chongjin on May 28 in a 1.2-ton wooden fishing boat. At the time they were picked up by the Coast Guard, the boat had fishing gear and provisions. They added that judging by the testimonies given, two of the men probably planned to defect even before they set sail.
The fishing boat, which was deemed beyond repair, has been disposed of.
The announcement came hours after North Korea asked for the repatriation of all three North Koreans and their fishing boat. (Yonhap News)