SEOUL — North Korea has returned six South Korean men whom it says were defectors. Political analysts say the gesture may be Pyongyang's attempt to thaw cold relations after it abruptly canceled reunions of families separated since the Korean War.
North Korean authorities returned six South Korean citizens Friday afternoon at the border “truce village” of Panmunjom.
South Korea's Unification Ministry says Pyongyang had detained the six men, between the ages of 27 and 67, for illegally entering North Korea.
North Korea's Red Cross announced Thursday they would be repatriated as a humanitarian gesture. Seoul welcomed the release though also noted it should have come sooner.
Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do says Pyongyang had ignored previous requests for information on the detainees and labeled them as “defectors.”
He says even though North Korea argues that they defected to North Korea, whether they did so voluntarily or not will be revealed by a thorough investigation.
North Korea's sudden repatriation of the men is a strange move from a country more known for isolating its own people and abducting others than returning willing defectors.
Since the end of fighting in the Korean War, North Korea forcibly held and kidnapped thousands, from prisoners of war to celebrities to ordinary fishermen.
Defections from the impoverished North to the wealthy South are fairly common with more than 25,000 since the end of fighting in the 1950s Korean War.
But defections from South to North are extremely rare. The return of South Korean defectors by Pyongyang is unheard of.
Yang Moo-jin, with the University of North Korean Studies, said Pyongyang may be trying to revive friendlier relations with Seoul.
He said this shows North Korea's intention to improve inter-Korean relations. It also contains a message, he said, to request the government of South Korean President Park Geun-hye to change its policy towards North Korea.
Relations between the two Koreas thawed this summer after tensions peaked with Pyongyang's third nuclear test in February.
North and South negotiated a re-opening of their joint factory zone in Kaesong and, for the first time in years, the reunion of families separated since the Korean War.
But, North Korea abruptly postponed the reunions, as well as talks on resuming South Korean tourism to Mount Kumgang, citing alleged hostility from Seoul.
A few of those freed Friday are believed to have crossed into North Korea in February 2010 when Pyongyang announced the detention of four South Koreans. Few details are known about the two other men.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency, at the time, quoted an activist saying the four may have been a group that crossed the border on a mission to meet former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
It was not clear why they wanted to meet the father of the current leader, Kim Jong Un, or if they succeeded before he died in late 2011.
Unification Ministry spokesman Kim could not confirm the details or identities of the men.
He said as soon as they enter South Korea, and they conduct an investigation, they can check whether the four people who North Korea mentioned in 2010 are included in the six people coming down today or not.
Rare South to North defections include one in September when border guards shot and killed a man trying to float across a river along the heavily armed border.
In 2009, a South Korean man wanted by police cut a hole in a fence on the border, known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and fled to the North.
VOA Seoul Bureau producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report