South Korea expels two North Koreans suspected of killing 16 fishermen

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea expelled on Thursday two North Korean fishermen suspected of killing 16 colleagues before crossing the border into the South last week, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.

The two men, both in their 20s, breached the inter-Korean maritime frontier off the east coast into the South aboard a squid fishing boat on Saturday and South Korean authorities detained them for questioning, ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min said.

The authorities concluded after their investigation that the men had fled to the South after killing 16 other men on the vessel, Lee said.

“The government decided to expel them as they had committed grave, non-political crimes such as murder and were not subject to our protection under the law,” Lee told a briefing.

“We also assessed that if they were accepted into our society, they would pose danger to our people’s lives and safety as vicious criminals who cannot be recognized as refugees under international law.”

They were handed over at the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas, Lee said.

Lee did not elaborate on why or how the two men had killed their colleagues. But Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told a parliamentary session that there was an “unfortunate event” between the sailors due to an abusive captain, without elaborating.

Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said at a separate parliamentary meeting the two North Koreans once expressed their willingness to defect, but there was no consistency in their statements.

Opposition lawmakers accused the government of concealing the incident, which was only revealed by a local media image of a presidential official reading a text message from a military officer saying the two men would be returned.

The photo prompted the ministry to hold an unscheduled news conference after the men were expelled.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson