August 11, 2010 / 11:47 AM / 10 years ago

North Korea to conduct rare border handover

PANMUNJOM, Korean Peninsula (Reuters) - North Korea said on Wednesday it would return a South Korean pastor, who visited Pyongyang illegally, to his homeland through a rare crossing at a truce village that straddles the border.

The North’s state-run KCNA news agency said Rev. Han Sang-ryol would cross back into South Korea on Sunday at the heavily armed Panmunjom border point, where the truce halting the Korean War was signed in 1953.

In the past, the post has been used as the point to return the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the war.

The handover comes as tensions rise on the divided peninsula with the torpedoing earlier this year of a South Korean warship — which Seoul blames on the North — as well as a series of military drills and retaliatory artillery fire.

The KCNA report said Han, a pro-unification activist, had requested to return via Panmunjom, and that the North’s Red Cross had sent its South Korean counterparts a message urging Seoul to take due measures to ensure safe return.

The Unification Ministry said such a crossing “was quite rare,” without detailing the last time such a handover had occurred at Panmunjom.

It confirmed the pastor had entered the North illegally. South Koreans must seek permission from their government to enter the North as the two Koreas are still technically at war because the Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

Han entered the North by air on June 12, the South’s Yonhap news agency said. It said South Korean authorities were planning to detain him as soon as he steps on to South Korean soil.

Panmunjom, about 50 km north of Seoul, is considered one of the last vestiges of the Cold War. Stony-faced soldiers from the North and South face off, sometimes only metres apart, on a daily basis.

South Korean tourists at a nearby hilltop observatory overlooking the Demilitarized Zone looked across the border at their estranged neighbours and reflected on the decline in relations.

“We need to go further than them, rather than being scared,” said Choi Gi-chul, 60. “We should make a big strike so that we don’t get attacked by them.”

Lim Seoon-hee, 31, dismissed the North’s artillery fire near their maritime border on Monday, saying: “I think they’re only threatening, for the sake of threatening.”

Seoul meanwhile sent a message to the North urging the release of the crew of a South Korean fishing boat, detained by a North Korean patrol off the east coast at the weekend.

Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said North Korea had accepted the message delivered through a Western military hotline between the two countries.

Additional reporting by Youri Kwon; Editing by Nick Macfie

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