S Korea detains boat carrying suspected N Korean escapees

The news comes amid Seoul witnessing an increase in the number of North Koreans crossing the border.
By Lee Jeong-Ho for RFA
2023.10.24
Seoul, South Korea
S Korea detains boat carrying suspected N Korean escapees A North Korean flag flutters at the propaganda village of Gijungdong in North Korea, in this picture taken near the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, South Korea, July 19, 2022.
Reuters

South Korean authorities said Tuesday it detained a North Korean boat carrying four people believed to be seeking to defect, to assess the legitimacy of their intentions.  

The small, wooden vessel was stopped off South Korea’s eastern city of Sokcho after being spotted near the inter-Korean maritime border early on Tuesday, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

“In collaboration with the Korean Coast Guard, the vessel was taken under custody off the eastern coast of Sokcho,” it said, adding that the South Korean military, using coastal surveillance tools such as radar and Thermal Observation Device (TOD), had been monitoring the ship.

The military statement did not disclose how many people were on board, but the Korean Coast Guard said four North Koreans were on the vessel.

An official from South Korea’s Unification Ministry told reporters in Seoul that relevant authorities are currently investigating the matter but refused to elaborate further. 

A South Korean government official, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, however, told Radio Free Asia that they had expressed their intent to defect.

South Korea usually prepares a pan-governmental team, comprising investigators from its military, police, intelligence agency, and unification ministry, for an investigation. The primary objective of these investigations are to confirm the identities of the escapees, and assess the genuineness of their intent to defect.

The Unification Ministry’s measured stance Tuesday on confirming the escapees’ defection intent stems from the necessity to adhere to the official joint investigation procedure. While infrequent, instances have arisen where individuals reverse their decision during the probe and indicate a wish to go back to the North.

Should their intention to defect be verified as genuine, it would mark the second known instance of North Koreans crossing the maritime border seeking defection in recent times, following an incident in May where two families of nine individuals crossed the western NLL on a fishing boat.

South Korea, during the previous Moon Jae-in administration, sent back two North Korean fishermen in 2019 who were believed to have killed 16 crew members on their ship while traversing the sea border. 

The latest news comes amid Seoul witnessing an increase in the number of North Korean escapees, crossing the border. According to data compiled by the Unification Ministry, the number of North Korean escapees entering the South has reached a total of 139 by the third quarter of this year, 40 more individuals from the second quarter.

The ministry official told reporters it remains uncertain whether the number will continue to grow in the future. But China’s repatriation of North Korean escapees shortly after the Hangzhou Asian Games indicates that those who want to escape from the country may choose to directly cross the inter-Korean border with the South.

Human Rights Watch reported earlier this month that Chinese authorities had forcibly returned over 500 North Koreans to the reclusive nation. Most of these North Koreans were civilians and religious figures who were arrested while attempting to travel to South Korea from China, RFA has learned

Edited by Taejun Kang and Mike Firn.

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