SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea returned three North Koreans who crossed the maritime border aboard a fishing vessel at the weekend, an official at Seoul’s defence ministry said on Monday.
North Korean fishing boats often breach the inter-Korean maritime frontier or go adrift towards the South.
South Korean authorities intercepted the ship that crossed the border on Saturday because a white towel was tied to its mast in a potential sign that those on board might want to defect, the official said.
The sailors said during questioning they used the towel to prevent any clash with other ships and had gone off course by mistake and wanted to return home.
“We’ve concluded that there was no indication any of the three sailors had intended to infiltrate,” the official said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The South Korean military handed over the sailors and the ship to North Korean authorities at the sea border on Monday afternoon, the official said.
Earlier in the day, South Korea’s Unification Ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs said it had notified Pyongyang that the crew members had willingly left a South Korean port to return to the North.
On Sunday, North Korea released a Russian fishing boat and 15 Russian and two South Korean crew members who were held after being accused of violating entry regulations.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry