(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES throughout with repatriation of crew members, JCS official's remarks)
By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, July 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korea handed over a North Korean boat and all of its three crew members to the communist nation on Monday after the crew told investigators that they accidentally crossed the eastern sea border and wanted to go back home, officials said.
The 10-meter-long wooden boat crossed the sea border, known as the Northern Limit Line (NLL), on Saturday night and was taken to a South Korean port. During questioning, the crew members expressed their desire to return home, according to the authorities.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the repatriation of the boat and its crew was completed at the maritime border at around 3:30 p.m. A North Korean vessel was waiting north of the sea border to tow the boat, the JCS said.
The government announced the decision to return the crew members earlier in the day and said it notified the North of the decision in the morning.
"What's most important from the humanitarian viewpoint is the free will of the North Koreans. Based on that free will, we decided to repatriate them," ministry spokesperson Lee Sang-min told a regular briefing earlier in the day.
The boat was first spotted sailing in waters 5.5 kilometers north of the NLL at around 10:15 p.m. on Saturday. Twenty-four minutes later, it started heading southward and crossed the NLL at around 11:20 p.m., according to the JCS.
The boat was flying white cloth on its mast, raising speculation that those aboard could be seeking defection. But the crew members later told investigators that their boat crossed the sea border due to a navigation error.
"They said the cloth had been raised since the boat left the port and that it is usually held in order to avoid a clash with large vessels," a JCS official said.
One of them was clad in a military uniform, leading South Korean authorities to tow the boat due to the possibility that it could be a military vessel. But the JCS official said all of the three men were confirmed not to be soldiers.
According to the investigation, the boat was registered to the North's military for fishing activities. North Korean individuals who buy fishing boats and register them to the military submit part of their catch to the authorities and divide the remaining haul among the crew members, the South's military said.
The boat was fishing for squid until Saturday morning some 157 kilometers off the coast, after leaving the North's eastern port of Tongchon early Thursday, they said.
"Based on a comprehensive review of the crew members' testimonies, their repatriation request and an inspection of the boat, we concluded that there were no suspicious points related to espionage activities," the JCS official said.
The man in the camouflage uniform said his wife made the cloth with fabric she purchased at a local market, known as jangmadang in North Korea, according to the official.
When North Korean fishing boats cross the sea border, the South's military usually drive them away.
During the peak squid fishing season this year, a far greater number of North Korean fishing boats violated the NLL compared with last year, according to the JCS. Between May 31 and July 14, some 380 North Korean boats were expelled for illegal fishing south of the maritime border, up from 40 recorded during the same period in 2018.
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