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Two Koreas at Stalemate Over Stranded Group

This undated video grab posted on March 9, 2011 by North Korea's official website shows Bong Yon-Chol (L) and Ri Jong-Hwa (R), the parents of would-be defector Bong Un-Ha. North Korea stepped on a propaganda campaign to secure the retur

A standoff continues between the two Koreas over the fate of 31 North Koreans, whose fishing boat drifted south last month. South Korea and the United Nations Command say four of the North Koreans want to stay. But North Korea insists all must be returned together.

South Korea’s Red Cross on Wednesday again asked North Korea to accept 27 of its nationals who want to return home.

The North refuses to accept the 27, who were aboard a fishing boat that crossed into South Korean waters. Pyongyang says first, Seoul must bring four others who apparently asked to remain in the South to the border for meetings with their relatives from the North.

Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo says Seoul cannot agree to that and Pyongyang should accept the others who desire to return home.

Lee says the South Korean government’s stance is that the repatriation of the 27 North Koreans should be handled with respect to their free will and from a humanitarian point of view. She adds that South Korea will continue to work with the North to immediately solve the issue.

Kim Soo-am, a researcher in Seoul at the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification, says there is no way the four others should be forcibly repatriated because of political repression in the North and the certain persecution they would face if returned.

Kim says even if both Koreas agree to hold Red Cross talks, it will not be easy to solve this problem. That is because, he says, the issue is inter-laced with various aspects of North Korea’s own internal political situation and the tug of war between Seoul and Pyongyang.

North Korea, in media dispatches, has warned of serious consequences if all 31 are not returned together. It says South Korea’s detention of the group for more than a month is inhumane.”

South Korea described the group as a collective fishing for clams, whose wooden boat drifted south of the disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea in early February.

The four who do not want to return to North Korea are described as the 38-year-old boat captain, a 44-year-old unemployed man, a 22-year-old female statistician and a 21-year-old female nurse.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled hunger and repression by crossing into China over the past two decades, and about 20,000 have eventually made it to South Korea. However, defections by water directly to the south are rare.