Six South Koreans, aged between 27 and 67 recently repatriated from North Korea, had sneaked into the North in search of better lives but ended up detained for up to 45 months for illegal entry, Seoul officials said Monday.
South Koreans defecting to impoverished, totalitarian North Korea are rare. In contrast, more than 25,000 North Koreans have fled to the South for political and economic reasons since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
North Korea sent back the six men and a woman’s corpse on Friday in an unusual action seen as an attempt to improve strained ties between the rival countries.
A South Korean security official said Monday that the men told investigators they entered North Korea between 2009 and 2012 by walking over frozen rivers from China, or swimming after jumping off a Chinese cruise ship on a border river.
The men had vague hopes that they could have better lives in North Korea after suffering business failures and family troubles, or engaging in pro-North Korea activities in South Korea, said the official, who requested anonymity because an investigation is still under way.
The six men were separately detained in North Korea for 14-45 months for questioning. One said he was constantly held in solitary confinement, while another said he didn’t receive medical treatment for a kidney stone, according to the South Korean official.
South Korean authorities are seeking a warrant to formally arrest the six men for a more thorough investigation, the official said. In South Korea, anyone who defects to North Korea can be punished by up to 10 years in prison under the country’s anti-North security law.