SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea pardoned six South Korean detainees in a goodwill gesture that could help revive talks on extending economic ties with the South.
The North handed the six over to the South Korean side of the jointly-managed border village of Panmunjom at 4:50 p.m. Friday, the Unification Ministry said in a text message, without giving any information about their identities.
North Korea “leniently pardoned them and decided to send them back to the south side to let them reunite with their families from a humanitarian point of view as they honestly admitted and reflected on their crime,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.
The repatriation took place at a time of strained relations between the governments after the North last month canceled reunions of families separated by the Korean War.
The sides also failed to agree on talks for resuming South Korean tours to a North Korean mountain that had provided millions of dollars annually for the Kim Jong Un regime before they were stopped in 2008.
“North Korea appears to hope this can nudge South Korea to make concessions and agree to talks on Mount Geumgang tours,” Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, said by phone. “The North is also sending a message to the U.S. that it may take a similar humanitarian step over Kenneth Bae.”
Bae, a tour operator and Christian missionary from Washington State, was arrested in North Korea in November and remains imprisoned after being accused of “hostile acts” against the country. North Korea earlier this month allowed his mother to enter the country and visit him.
More than 500 South Koreans detained by the North hadn’t been returned as of 2012, according to the Unification Ministry. They were part of more than 3,800 people kidnapped by the North since the end of the Korean War in 1953 that cemented the division of the two countries.
The Unification Ministry didn’t indicate whether any in today’s group were victims of kidnapping or had been detained after traveling to the North.
Most of those kidnapped were fishermen. In September, a South Korean managed to escape the North 41 years after his fishing boat was seized.
“North Korea appears to be discarding something that is no longer useful as a bargaining chip,” Ahn Chan Il, a political scientist who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies, said by phone. “I suspect North Korea may be starting another psychological game with South Korea.”
The group may include four unidentified South Koreans who North Korea said in 2010 had been detained for illegal entry, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui Do said earlier at a briefing, without giving more detail. Minister Ryoo Kihl Jae wasn’t able confirm whether detained missionaries were among the group.
The North’s Red Cross notified the South Thursday of the plan to repatriate the detainees, who are all men ranging from age 27 to 67, the ministry said in e-mailed statements.
“This appears to be a humanitarian gesture with a message that South Korea should also make goodwill gestures in other issues” such as suspended cross-border tours, Kim Soo Am, a North Korea researcher at the government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said by phone. “North Korea understands it can’t always rely on tension.”
Citizens of the Koreas are not allowed to travel to the other side without approval, as the countries technically remain in a state of war after the 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace agreement.
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