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(3rd LD) N. Korea questioning four S. Koreans for illegal entry: report

All Headlines 16:15 February 26, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES with S. Korea's checking of nationals in N. Korea, speculation, comments by activist in paras 4-8; ADDS background in last para)

SEOUL, Feb. 26 (Yonhap) -- North Korea said Friday it was questioning four South Korean nationals for their illegal entry into the communist state, a new thorn in relations between the divided countries if confirmed.

The North's official Korean Central News Agency, monitored in Seoul, reported from Pyongyang that North Korean authorities have "recently detained four South Koreans who illegally entered it."

The brief English language report did not identify those held or say how they entered North Korea, which remains technically at war with South Korea after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce. Their border is tightly sealed and among the world's most heavily fortified.

The Unification Ministry in Seoul said it was checking the report, adding none of the 1,054 South Koreans reported staying in the North as of Friday morning were in custody there.

"The only area we could suspect as a route for the South Koreans to enter North Korea is its border with China if our nationals did cross it," a ministry official told reporters, declining to be identified because of the speculative nature of his comments.

Choi Seong-yong, a Seoul-based activist, claimed South Koreans crossed into the North Korean border town of Namyang from Tumen in China "several days ago to meet Kim Jong-il."

Choi cited unidentified informants, downplaying the possibility that those said to be detained could be North Korean defectors helping others flee the country.

"North Korea would not even have reported such an incident because defectors are considered no more than traitors," he said by phone.

The reported crossing, if confirmed, would mark the first illegal entry by a foreigner into the North after Robert Park, a Korean-American missionary and human rights activist, walked in across the frozen Tumen river along the Chinese-North Korean border in December. Park was released earlier this month.

Despite a series of peace overtures this year, North Korea on Thursday threatened an attack if the South and the U.S. go ahead with their joint annual military drill next month. The country raised tension this year by firing artillery shots along its Yellow Sea border with South Korea.

In October last year, a 30-year-old South Korean man placed on a police wanted list crossed the eastern side of the Demilitarized Zone to defect to the North by cutting through barbed wire fences.

In August, two U.S. journalists were released after months of captivity in North Korea after they crossed into it from China while working on a story about North Korean refugees.

The journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor but were freed as part of a diplomatic mission spearheaded by former U.S. President Bill Clinton in August.

The bulk of South Koreans in North Korea work at a joint industrial park in the border town of Kaesong where the South has combined its capital with labor from the North to produce labor-intensive goods.

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