Six South Korean men accused by rival North Korea of illegal entry — and a woman’s corpse — returned home across the Demilitarized Zone on Friday, an unexpected gesture seen in Seoul as an attempt to improve frayed relations and revive money-making projects.
Neither Seoul nor Pyongyang provided many details about the six men, who ranged in age from 27 to 67, or the body. But some media and analysts in Seoul considered the men’s release a conciliatory move after Pyongyang’s abrupt cancellation last month of emotional reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea said the South Korean woman died in a quarrel with her husband, one of the men who crossed the border, according to an official with the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of office rules, said the claim would be investigated.
After crossing over the heavily armed border at the so-called truce village of Panmunjom, the men were handed over to South Korean intelligence officials to determine how they ended up in the North. It’s a crime for South Koreans to travel to North Korea without government permission, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Before they were scrapped, the planned inter-Korean family reunions had been seen as an example of easing tensions between the rivals, who had begun diplomacy after trading threats of war in March and April.
The men’s return could also set up another push by Pyongyang for talks with a so-far resistant Seoul on resuming lucrative, jointly run tours to a North Korean mountain resort, which provided a good source of hard currency before they were suspended after the 2008 shooting death of a South Korean tourist.
The South Koreans’ return Friday came as Pyongyang separately approved a visit next week by 24 South Korean lawmakers to a recently restarted, jointly run factory park in the North. The Kaesong complex is another source of foreign currency for impoverished North Korea and the last remaining inter-Korean project from a previous era of rapprochement.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a short dispatch later Friday that the South Korean men had illegally entered North Korea, but provided few other details. It said the men were investigated by a “relevant institution” that “leniently pardoned them and decided to send them back to the south side to let them reunite with their families from a humanitarian point of view as they honestly admitted and reflected on their crime.”
The South’s Unification Ministry also welcomed the release on humanitarian grounds.
South Koreans occasionally try to enter the North, but many more North Koreans defect to the South, often because of poverty or political persecution. Seoul also estimates that hundreds of other South Koreans have been kidnapped and detained by North Korea since the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically in a state of war.
While officials weren’t discussing the men’s identities or motivations, some speculation in Seoul focused on the possibility that they were Christian missionaries — many of whom operate along the China-North Korea border, helping defectors.