South Korea's unification ministry said Monday it has slapped five pastors with 2 million won fines each for meeting North Koreans without the government's approval.
The pastors belonging to the National Council of Churches in Korea met with their North Korean counterparts in China in late February without receiving the ministry's approval for their contact.
The fines mark the first time Seoul has penalized the NCCK for breaking rules regarding the meeting of North Koreans.
South Korean nationals need the government's approval when meeting people from North Korea. The two sides are still technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The government has not allowed South Koreans to visit North Korea or contact North Koreans in response to the North's January nuclear test and long-range rocket launch in February.
The pastors said that they notified the ministry of their contact with the North Koreans after reaching China, a move which they said did not lead to any problems in the past.
They said that they are considering lodging a lawsuit against the government and stage a protest against what they called the government's hostility against inter-Korean reconciliation.
"The group is seeking to help turn a confrontational mode on the peninsula into reconciliatory one," Noh Jong-sun, an honorary professor at Yonsei University, told reporters on Monday. Noh was one of the five pastors.
But the ministry rejected their claims, saying that its punitive actions were made as they clearly violated a law on inter-Korean exchanges.
The government said that the group met the North Koreans despite its warnings.
"A submission of a report of contact with North Koreans afterwards is only allowed when there is an accidental encounter,"
said a ministry official. "This case is different as they pushed ahead with the meeting with North Koreans despite the government's decision not to allow it." (Yonhap)