SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea has proposed Red Cross talks to try to resolve a row over the fate of 31 of its nationals in South Korea, four of whom have said they want to defect, officials in the South said Monday.
The South says the four, on a fishing boat that drifted into South Korean waters last month, would be allowed to stay, while the remainder would be sent back home.
“The government’s official position is that the will of individuals must be respected,” a Foreign Ministry official told a news briefing in Seoul.
The North has lashed out at its neighbor, accusing Seoul of forcing the North Koreans to defect against their will.
North Korea’s Red Cross requested working-level talks on Wednesday at the truce village of Panmunjom on their heavily fortified border to resolve the issue, the South’s Red Cross said in a statement.
North Korea said the four people who wished to defect should be brought to the talks, and that their kin would also attend.
The 27 returnees and the vessel they sailed south off the peninsula’s west coast on February 5 in thick fog were meant to be repatriated through land and sea borders Friday, but the North refused to allow their reentry.
The boat was spotted drifting near Yeonpyeong island, which lies just 11 km (7 miles) from the North’s soil and was bombarded in November by North Korean artillery, killing four people.
Tensions between the two Koreas have been running high for a couple of years due to a number of deadly attacks blamed on the North and the South’s decision to sever economic links to try to force Pyongyang to denuclearize.
An attempt to restart inter-Korean dialogue broke down in February. The South said it saw no sign the North was serious about talks.
Both the North and South have since renewed calls for dialogue. Regional powers have nudged the rivals to defuse the crisis and restart international talks over the North’s nuclear program.
“The government hopes the issue of returning the North Koreans will not act as an obstacle to the possibility of opening six-party talks,” the Foreign Ministry official said.
The two Koreas are still technically at war after an armistice, not a treaty, ended hostilities at the end of their 1950-53 civil conflict. (Reporting by Jeremy Laurence; Editing by Jonathan Hopfner)