North Korea Demands Return Of Nine Refugees

SEOUL (AFP)–Pyongyang on Thursday demanded the return of nine apparent North Korean defectors who crossed into South Korean territorial waters in a rowing boat, Seoul officials said.

"North Korea’s Red Cross sent a message to the South Korean Red Cross and demanded that the South return the nine people at an early date," the unification ministry, which handles cross-border affairs, said in a statement.

The nine are being questioned by the authorities, it said.

The South says the nine are free to choose whether to stay or to return home.

The three men, two women and four children–family members of two brothers–rowed across the tense sea border off the west coast last Saturday. Media reports say they expressed a desire to defect.

"What’s most important is their own free will, whether they want to return home or stay here," foreign ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae said earlier Thursday.

"Our principle in dealing with this matter…is respecting their free will either way."

In February a boatload of North Koreans drifted across the Yellow Sea border in thick fog, apparently accidentally.

Seoul returned 27 of the 31 people on board but refused to hand over the other four, saying they had freely chosen to stay in the South.

Pyongyang complained that the four had been pressured to stay and publicized appeals from their relatives for them to come home.


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