North Korea plans to allow six detained South Koreans to return home, officials in Seoul said Thursday, an unusual move that accompanied Pyongyang’s separate approval of a visit by South Korean lawmakers to a recently restarted factory park both Koreas run in the North.
Pyongyang’s Red Cross sent a letter to the South saying the detained South Koreans will cross over the heavily armed border at the so-called truce village of Panmunjom on Friday, according to a short statement from the South’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for cross-border ties.
The statement says Seoul plans to accept the South Koreans and investigate how they entered North Korea. Seoul provided only scant details, saying they were men ranging in age from 27 to 67.
The North’s move, which some South Koreans saw as a conciliatory gesture, came as Pyongyang approved a tour next week by 24 South Korean lawmakers of the jointly run Kaesong factory park, located just over the border. The moves come a month after Pyongyang abruptly canceled reunions for families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War.
While it’s not clear why the South Koreans to be released Friday went North, or why Pyongyang is releasing them now, there’s media speculation in Seoul that they may have either voluntarily crossed the border or been captured near it. North Korea said in 2010 that it was investigating four South Koreans for allegedly illegally entering the country. Seoul says it has repeatedly asked Pyongyang to confirm the four citizens’ identities but has received no reply.
South Koreans visiting North Korea without government approval can be punished by up to 10 years in prison under South Korea’s National Security Law.