Seoul to repatriate N. Korean 27 over weekend

AFP , Friday 25 Mar 2011

S Korea plans to repatriate 27 North Koreans despite of Korea's assertion that it would only accept repatriation of all 31 who had drifted into S Korea's territory

South Korea said Friday it plans to repatriate by sea on Sunday 27 North Koreans who last month drifted on a boat into the South's territory, a report said.

A statement issued through the unification ministry by the South Korean Red Cross said the charity had "notified the North that it would repatriate the 27 North Koreans at 1:00 pm (0500 GMT) on March 27," the Yonhap news agency reported.

The group were among 31 North Koreans on a fishing boat which drifted across the disputed Yellow Sea border in thick fog on February 5.

The communist North had previously refused to accept the 27, saying it wanted all 31 people -- or none at all. The other four are said to want to stay in the South.

The isolated North refuses to accept that the two men and two women want to defect, and says the South put pressure on group members to stay to try to fuel cross-border tensions.

In a further setback, Pyongyang then rejected an offer by Seoul to send them through the tense land border.

South Korea, which had originally planned to repatriate the group last week, had postponed the transfer, citing bad weather at sea and the need to repair their boat, Yonhap said.

But the Red Cross said weather was expected to improve in the Yellow Sea on Sunday, clearing a hurdle for the repatriation, Yonhap reported.

The North has demanded that Seoul bring the four nationals said to be defectors to a meeting with their families in the border village of Panmunjom so they can confirm in person that they want to stay in the South.

Seoul said it has no intention of producing the defectors, saying their free choice to stay has been "confirmed by objective and fair measures".

Cross-border relations have been icy since the South accused the North of torpedoing a warship in March 2010 with the loss of 46 lives. Pyongyang denies the charge.

Tensions again flared after Pyongyang shelled a border island in November in its first attack on a civilian area since the Korean War, killing four South Koreans.

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