SEOUL, South Korea – Four South Korean fishermen, whom Pyongyang detained for a month after they accidentally entered North Korean waters, returned home Saturday.
Their release is the latest indication that the communist country wants to improve ties with its southern neighbor and put stalled cross-border projects back on track.
Earlier this month, the North freed two American journalists and a South Korean worker after more than four months of detention. On Friday the two sides agreed to resume reunions of families divided by the Korean War more than half a century ago.
On Saturday, North Korean authorities handed over the fishermen and their boat to South Korea's Coast Guard officials at the Koreas' shared eastern maritime border.
Pyongyang held the four South Koreans for a month after their boat strayed into northern waters on July 30. Maritime officials say the fishermen encountered difficulties with their satellite navigation system.
"I am sorry to the public for causing concern, but I am deeply grateful for the support that secured our quick return," the boat's captain Park Kwang-sun told reporters in a brief comment after arriving at Sokcho, a port 130 miles east of Seoul.
Park and three other crew were immediately whisked away by officials to an undisclosed location for a debriefing, said Kim Tae-jong, a Coast Guard spokesman in Sokcho.
Experts said the North's decision to release the fishermen would remove obstacles to repairing ties on the Korean peninsula — and eventually help patch up its relations with the United States.
"The release turned on the green light for the overall improvement of inter-Korean ties," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.
The Koreas will hold six days of reunions involving 200 families at the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort starting Sept. 26.
Millions of families were separated by the Korean War, which ended in 1953 with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. No mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges exist between ordinary citizens across the Korean border.
Following their first summit in 2000, the two Koreas regularly held family reunions until late 2007. Then, ties frayed badly after conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office last year with hard-line policies such as linking aid to North Korea's nuclear disarmament.
The Choson Sinbo, a Tokyo-based newspaper that is considered a mouthpiece for the North Korean regime, said Friday that inter-Korean relations can improve if Seoul "grabs the extended hand" of the North.
Seoul has welcomed the North's conciliatory overtures, but it appears unlikely to change its policy toward the North unless Pyongyang takes steps toward disarmament.
"Our policy remains unchanged that the resolution of North Korea's nuclear issue is important," a South Korean official handling North Korean affairs told The Associated Press on Saturday. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing sensitivity of the issue.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates seized a cargo ship bound for Iran carrying banned rocket-propelled grenades and other arms from North Korea, the first such seizure since sanctions against the North were tightened, diplomats and officials told The Associated Press on Friday.
The seizure was carried out in accordance with tough new U.N. Security Council sanctions meant to derail North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but which also ban the North's sale of any conventional arms.
"We can confirm that the UAE detained a North Korean vessel containing illicit cargo," a Western diplomat told the AP.