SEOUL, South Korea – Seoul refused Friday to send back a group of North Koreans who crossed into South Korean waters by boat last weekend, saying all nine have expressed the desire to defect.
North Korea has demanded the immediate repatriation of all nine people who landed on a South Korean-held island last Saturday aboard two small boats. Pyongyang warned Thursday that failure to send them back would aggravate ties between the two Koreas.
Relations are already tense, with North Korea threatening earlier this month to retaliate for the South Korean military's use of photos of leader Kim Jong Il's family for shooting practice.
Seoul also blames Pyongyang for two deadly attacks that killed 50 South Koreans last year. U.S.-made missiles capable of striking Pyongyang were deployed to South Korean sites near the Demilitarized Zone earlier this year, South Korean media reports said.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff declined to confirm the reports.
The South Korean military said Friday it has not detected suspicious activities by North Korean troops.
But the U.S. ambassador warned that another provocation would draw punishment.
"If North Korea takes provocative actions, we will respond with greater multilateral sanctions and pressure as we did in the wake of North Korea's nuclear test in 2009," Ambassador Kathleen Stephens told foreign reporters.
"At the same time, the United States does not have a hostile policy toward North Korea and remains open to engaging" with the North.
The Korean peninsula has remained in a technical state of war since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953. After a period of warming inter-Korean ties, relations have been tense since President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008.
Pyongyang also threatened Friday to "dispose of" a hotel, spa and restaurants at a now-stalled northern mountain resort once operated by South Koreans.
Joint tours to Diamond Mountain were suspended in 2008 following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist. North Korea later confiscated or shut down the facilities.
The defections by North Koreans, which has surpassed 21,000 since the end of the war, also remain a sore point between the two Koreas. Earlier this year, four of 31 North Koreans on a boat that drifted south asked to remain in South Korea. The North said the four were being held against their will.
South Korea's Red Cross sent a message to the North on Friday saying all nine who landed in South Korean waters last weekend declared their wish to defect and that Seoul would handle the situation "in accordance with their free will," the Unification Ministry said.
Associated Press writer Kelly Olsen contributed to this report.