Nov. 23 (UPI) -- North Korea briefly seized a South Korean fishing vessel in international waters before releasing the crew, citing improved inter-Korea relations, according to multiple press reports.
South Korea's unification ministry told reporters Friday the South Korea fishing boat "S" was operating in an area of the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, that is accessible to boats of North Korean, South Korean and Japanese origin, KBS and JTBC reported.
The North Korean military captured the vessel after 5:40 p.m. on Nov. 3, when about seven or eight armed North Korean soldiers demanded answers from the South Korean crew.
"Who said you could operate here?" the North Koreans reportedly asked the South Korean fishermen in non-territorial waters.
The North Korean guards then "dragged" the South Korean boat into North Korea's claimed waters, or about 20 miles, according to KBS.
The North Korean crew had moved up to the South Korean vessel in an inflatable rubber boat, climbed on to the fishing boat then locked the South Koreans in the boat's canteen, JTBC reported.
After the boat was taken to North Korean waters, a senior officer reportedly said the boat should be returned in the spirit of better ties.
"North and South relations are in the middle of reconciliation, and unification will soon come," the North Korean officer had said, according to JTBC. "You are allowed to return."
The move is unprecedented for North Korea -- the regime has captured South Korean boats in the past, but would take time to repatriate the vessel.
Seoul kept the incident confidential until Friday, but the presidential Blue House has held two national security council meetings following the boat's seizure, reports say.
The unification ministry has expressed regret to Pyongyang.