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North Korea 'thanks' Japan for returning 'distressed' fishermen

By Elizabeth Shim
North Korea 'thanks' Japan for returning 'distressed' fishermen
Nine North Koreans being transferred to a plane at at Komatsu Airport in the Japanese city of Kanazawa on Sept. 14, 2011. Japan sent the North Koreans to the South at the time, but last week repatriated a similar group to the North. File Photo by Kyodo News/Yonhap/EPA

Feb. 4 (UPI) -- The North Korean Red Cross thanked Japan for repatriating six North Koreans found at sea, according to Pyongyang's state media.

KCNA reported Monday the North Korean Red Cross expressed gratitude to Japanese authorities for "helping" return six North Korean seamen who were found in a "state of distress" in the Sea of Japan near the coast of Aomori and Shimane Prefectures in January.

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The conciliatory statement is unusual for North Korea; in January Pyongyang had condemned Japan for increasing its defense and for reviving its military past.

"The Central Committee of the Red Cross of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea expressed gratitude through the relevant channel, for providing humanitarian measures several times to our crewmen so that they may safely return to their homeland," KCNA said.

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The Japanese decision to repatriate the North Koreans via a route in China is a break from past policy; in September 2011, Japan sent nine North Koreans, found on a wooden boat near western Japan, to South Korea after processing them at an immigration facility in Nagasaki Prefecture.

Japanese authorities said last week the North Koreans expressed a desire to return, but repatriation has caused controversy in the past. Human rights groups have said people repatriated by China, after leaving without permission, can be sentenced to more than two years of forced labor in prison camps. It is unclear which measures will be applied to the North Koreans who "volunteered" to return on Friday.

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Yang Moo-jin, a South Korean analyst at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told Yonhap secret discussions between Pyongyang and Tokyo are ongoing, and the Japanese may have cooperated with the North as the two sides discussed Japanese abductees believed to be still held in the North.

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Japan has said a total of 26 North Korean boats have drifted into territorial waters since the new year.

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