SEOUL, South Korea — Six South Koreans who had been held in North Korea on charges of illegal entry returned to their home country on Friday, after Pyongyang released them in a gesture that could help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The six men were handed over to the South Korean authorities at the border village of Panmunjom, the South’s Unification Ministry said in a statement.
North Korean officials also handed over the remains of a woman. They said the woman was the wife of one of the six men and that she was killed during a quarrel with her husband, South Korean officials said.
Little was known about the men beyond their surnames and ages, said to be between 27 and 67. The Unification Ministry said it would question them to find out how and when they had arrived in North Korea. It is a violation of the South’s National Security Act for a South Korean to travel to the North without government permission.
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Since 2010, Pyongyang has said that it is holding several South Koreans accused of entering the North illegally, but it has not responded to the South’s requests for their identities and other details.
On Friday, the North’s Korean Central News Agency said the government in Pyongyang “leniently pardoned” the South Koreans on humanitarian grounds so that they could return home and reunite with their families.
Over the past two decades, roughly 25,000 North Koreans have defected to the South, fleeing hunger and political repression in their homeland. But South Koreans have also fled to the North on occasion, defecting through North Korean diplomatic missions abroad or making their way across the border, often to escape legal, financial or marital troubles in the South.
In 2009, a South Korean civilian sneaked past border guards to defect to the North. Last month, South Korean soldiers shot and killed a South Korean man who was trying to cross a river at the western end of the border.
South Korean officials suspect that some South Koreans may also have fled to the North through its border with China. Nearly all of the North Korean defectors to the South have gone through China.
The six men’s release is the latest of several recent conciliatory gestures from Pyongyang toward Seoul, including the reopening last month of the jointly run Kaesong industrial park in North Korea, though the North has also made threatening remarks during that period and postponed the resumption of a reunion program for families divided by the Korean War.