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(LEAD) 27 N. Koreans repatriated by sea

All Headlines 13:58 March 27, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with repatriation; CHANGES headline; ADDS photo)

SEOUL, March 27 (Yonhap) -- Twenty-seven North Koreans were repatriated to their communist nation Sunday, 50 days after their wooden boat drifted across the western border into South Korea, Seoul officials said.

They are among 31 North Koreans -- 11 men and 20 women -- who strayed across the Yellow Sea border into South Korean waters on Feb. 5. They sought to be repatriated, while the other four expressed hope to remain in the South.

The 27 North Koreans left a military base in Incheon, west of Seoul, on two coast guard ships earlier in the day and transferred to their 5-ton wooden vessel.

After the boat crossed the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the tense Yellow Sea at around 12:55 p.m., it was guided by a North Korean military ship, according to the officials.

The NLL refers to the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas, which remain technically in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

The two sides initially agreed that the repatriation take place on March 17, but it had been delayed due to a mechanical problem on the wooden vessel and bad weather.

The western waters near the NLL are a flash point between the two Koreas. A South Korean warship was torpedoed there by a North Korean submarine a year ago, killing 46 sailors. The North also launched sudden artillery attacks on the South's island of Yeonpyeong, just south of the NLL, last November, killing two marines and two civilians.


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