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7 North Koreans Sail to South Korea


South Korean navy speed boats patrol near Yeonpyong Island, west of mainland South Korea, in the Yellow Sea (File)

A small group of North Koreans has reportedly made a sea crossing to South Korea, just a day after the North declared it would turn the disputed maritime region into a "firing zone."

Major South Korean media reported the arrival of seven North Koreans by sea Tuesday, instantly fueling speculation they had made the journey to defect.

However, just hours later, government sources reportedly said the North Koreans have asked to go home. South Korean officials are planning to send them back to the North by land via the village of Panmunjom, which straddles the border separating the two Koreas.

South Korean officials have offered no public confirmation of the media reports.

Lee Hae Young heads an association for North Korean defectors like himself here in Seoul. He says because the North Korean sailors have seen South Korea, and have probably been questioned intensively by intelligence officials, they may face difficulties upon their return home.

The bottom line, says Lee, is that their future is not bright. He says it is unlikely that they will be able to return to their normal lives.

The seven apparently reached the South in a small boat over waters west of the peninsula, crossing a United Nations maritime border the North has refused to recognize for decades. In its latest claim of sovereignty over the area, North Korea warned Monday it would turn it into a "peacetime firing zone" for its land-based artillery.

South Korea's navy has issued a statement of its "grave regret" at the North's threat, and warns it is fully ready to defend the area against any North Korean provocation.

On a separate front, the two Koreas are acting to defuse tensions, by re-establishing high-quality communication lines across their border.

South Korean officials say construction of a set of fiber-optic cables linking North and South is almost complete.

Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung says the South will work with North Korea to test the lines this week, and officially open them for regular operations next week.

He says the communication lines are likely to improve the convenience of border crossings by allowing the two Koreas to exchange information quickly and efficiently.

North Korea severed older communication lines between North and South last year during a period of anger with the South's government.