Nov. 8 (UPI) -- The boat belonging to North Korean fishermen who were deported by South Korean authorities was returned across the border on Friday.
Seoul's unification ministry said the boat transfer took place in the afternoon, between 2:08 and 2:51 p.m., Yonhap reported.
South Korea has defended its decision to deport the two fishermen who are accused of killing 16 of their crewmembers, including the boat's captain, before fleeing by boat.
The suspects had expressed a desire for resettlement in the South. Seoul said the criminal status of the two men excludes them from protection under South Korea's North Korean Defectors Act.
Following the deportations, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul told the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee the fishermen were escapees who had committed their crimes in August. A total of three North Korean men had killed their fellow crewmembers, with one suspect arrested in the North.
Kim also said the defectors cannot be protected under law because they had committed "serious non-political crimes."
"They are a threat to the lives and safety of the [South Korean] people," the minister said Thursday.
The repatriations may have been first made public after an anonymous presidential Blue House official sent a text message to local news service News 1, which included a photo. The official statement from the unification ministry may have followed after, according to local press reports.
The repatriations are under scrutiny in Seoul, Newsis reported Thursday.
Local lawmaker Lee Hye-hoon of the center-right Bareun Mirae Party said the North Koreans had already wiped evidence of the mass killings at the time of their arrest.
Lee was briefing reporters on a statement from Seoul's spy agency about the boat's condition. Lee also said the spy agency would not disclose how the North Korean testimonies came to light, despite the removal of crime evidence and weapons, according to Newsis.
Human rights activists are condemning the decision to deport the suspects to North Korea.
Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Washington said in an emailed statement the North Koreans are "citizens of South Korea, granting them the right to live in the South and be protected by its legal system."