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Wind delays repatriation of N. Koreans

South Korea temporarily suspended the return of 27 of the 31 North Koreans who accidentally strayed here on a boat last month until winds calm to allow their safe voyage back home, the Unification Ministry here said Wednesday.

North Korea on Tuesday asked the South to repatriate the 27 people via sea, softening its previous stance not to accept anyone unless Seoul also returned four of its nationals wanting to defect.

A small fishing boat carrying the North Koreans drifted over the sea border in thick fog on Feb. 5. Four, among the 20 women and 11 men, four have expressed their wishes to stay behind in the wealthier South.

“It would be unsafe to send back the 27 North Koreans today,” Lee Jong-joo, vice spokesperson for Seoul’s Unification Ministry, told a regular press briefing.

“Weather is the most important issue right now,” she added. “It would be dangerous for the five ton-boat to take off in this kind of high wave height.”

The ministry said it plans to inform North Korea of a new date for the repatriation of the 27 people as soon as high seas issues are resolved, and hand them over near the Northern Limit Line, the de-facto inter-Korean maritime border.

The two Koreas, who are technically still at war as their 1950-53 conflict ended in a temporary truce, have been at odds over the four North Koreans wishing to stay behind in the South.

Demanding to meet these two men and two women, Pyongyang had refused five attempts from Seoul to send back the remaining 27 people through the truce village of Panmunjeom since earlier this month.

South Korea has been firm on keeping the four would-be defectors here, citing international practice and humanitarian reasons. The North, which sternly punishes people attempting to flee from the impoverished state, accuses Seoul of influencing the decision of the four who were investigated for nearly a month.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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