North Korea Holds Onto Seized South Korean Fishermen

Published July 31, 2009

| AP

North Korea's military said Friday that four South Korean fishermen seized a day earlier after their boat strayed into North Korean waters remained under investigation, government officials in Seoul said.

The 29-ton boat drifted north Thursday after the satellite navigation system apparently malfunctioned. North Korean soldiers towed the vessel to the eastern port of Jangjon, just north of the border, South Korean officials said.

North Korea's military said in a written message to the South that "the issue of crew members and the vessel will be dealt with according to the outcome of the investigation," according to the Unification Ministry in Seoul.

Some analysts said the North could use the fishermen to exert pressure on Seoul amid badly strained ties.

The two Koreas technically remain at war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce in 1953, not a peace treaty.

Maritime incidents involving fishing boats and other commercial vessels occur from time to time. While most are resolved amicably, two skirmishes involving military ships twice have sparked deadly naval battles, in 1999 and 2002.

North Korea, censured by the U.N. Security Council for a spate of nuclear and missile tests his year, has custody of a South Korean employee of the two Koreas' joint industrial park in the border town of Kaesong, in addition to two American journalists sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor.

Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung called on Pyongyang to quickly return the fishermen and their boat on humanitarian grounds, citing Seoul's fast repatriation of North Korean fishing boats that have drifted into its waters in recent years.

North Korean officials have provided no word on the fishermen's condition, or any other details, the ministry said.

South Korea allowed a North Korean patrol vessel to tow away a North Korean fishing boat that crossed into the countries' disputed western maritime border on Thursday, according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"In similar cases in the past, the North returned fishermen after four to five days of investigation," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies. "But considering the current tension between the two sides, it is possible for the North to hold them much longer, citing its investigation."

Chun, the Unification Ministry spokesman, said a North Korean maritime official informed his South Korean counterpart by telephone Friday that there were no new developments and officials would keep Seoul informed of any news.

Relations between the two Koreas have been tense since a pro-U.S., conservative government took office in Seoul last year advocating a tougher policy on the North.

Pyongyang cut off nearly all ties in retaliation, and halted major joint projects except for an industrial complex located just across the border in the North.

However, North Korea has been holding a South Korean worker since March for allegedly denouncing Pyongyang's political system. Seoul repeatedly has demanded his release but the North has not allowed access to him.

American reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee also were arrested in March, accused of entering the country illegally from China and engaging in "hostile acts." The women, reporting for former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture, were sentenced to prison terms in June.

"The United States continues to urge North Korea to grant amnesty to the two journalists and to permit their immediate release," a U.S. official said earlier this week, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Amid the tension following the May nuclear test, the South Korean government banned aid workers and other private groups from traveling to Pyongyang.

The Unificiation Ministry said Friday it has granted permission for the first time since the test for seven officials from the relief agency World Vision Korea to visit North Korea for eight days starting Saturday.

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