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(LEAD) N. Korea agrees to partial repatriation of its nationals from S. Korea

All Headlines 17:24 March 15, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES; ADDS details, background throughout)
By Sam Kim

SEOUL, March 15 (Yonhap) -- North Korea agreed Tuesday to the repatriation of only 27 of its 31 nationals held in South Korea after their fishing boat drifted here last month, withdrawing its earlier demand that Seoul also send back four wishing to defect, officials said.

The agreement, expressed through the Red Cross channel of the two countries, ends the deadlock that has lasted since South Korea told North Korea more than a week ago that it would repatriate only 27 of the 31 North Koreans who came here on a wooden boat on Feb. 5.

Backing down on its demand that all 31 be returned in a single group, the North requested Tuesday that 27 be returned by sea, according to Unification Ministry officials here.

"The North Korean side requested that the 27 people first be returned in consideration of the feelings of the families waiting for them," the South Korea Red Cross said in a release.

The South, citing bad weather in the Yellow Sea through which they came, proposed instead returning them on Wednesday through a truce village straddling the countries, but the North insisted they be returned by sea as soon as weather improves, the officials said.

"If the North insists they be returned by sea, we will watch the weather situation at sea. If returned by sea, they will ride on the same boat they came here on," a ministry official said earlier, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity.

Since South Korea announced that four of the 31 North Koreans would stay, the North has mounted a propaganda campaign against the South, sending emotional letters written by the family members of the defectors and posting online video interviews with them.

North Korea claims the South coerced the four into defecting in a plot against Pyongyang. Seoul denies the charge and says the four defected on their own free will.

The end of the stalemate, which comes amid growing speculation the sides were exploring ways to resume their stalled talks, clears the latest thorn between the countries that remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce.

The relations between them hit the worst point in at least a decade when the North bombarded a South Korean island in November last year, killing four people.

samkim@yna.co.kr
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