North Korea frees fishermen detained last month, requests flood assistance from South Korea

By Kwang-tae Kim, AP
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

NKorea frees 7 detained SKorean, Chinese fishermen

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea freed the crew Tuesday of a South Korean fishing boat seized a month ago, a sign the rivals may be talking behind the scenes to improve relations that have plummeted to their lowest point in years since the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship.

In another indication ties may be strengthening, the North asked the South for aid.

North Korea seized the South Korean fishing boat with a crew of seven — four South Koreans and three Chinese — off the east coast on Aug. 8.

The North accused the crew of fishing illegally in its exclusive economic zone but on Monday announced it would free the crew as a “humanitarian” gesture.

North Korean authorities handed the crew and their boat over to South Korean officials Tuesday at the eastern maritime border, a Coast Guard official said. He asked not to be identified because of the issue’s sensitivity.

“I am sorry to the public for causing concern, but I am grateful for the public support that secured our quick return,” the boat’s captain Kim Chil-i said in a brief comment after arriving in the port, according to the Coast Guard.

Kim and six other crew were immediately whisked away by officials for a debriefing, a Coast Guard official said. He asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Tensions have been high on the peninsula recently after an international team of investigators blamed North Korea for torpedoing the Cheonan and killing 46 sailors in March. Pyongyang flatly denies responsibility and has warned any punishment would trigger war.

The North’s rare conciliatory overture Tuesday came days after flood-stricken North Korea requested a shipment of rice, cement and heavy equipment from South Korea to recover from recent flooding. Last week, South Korea’s Red Cross proposed sending medicine, daily necessities and emergency food worth 10 billion won ($8.5 million).

The North’s Red Cross replied Saturday that it would prefer rice, cement and heavy equipment to help with flood-recovery efforts.

Waters overran riverbanks last month, swamping farms, houses and public buildings in the northwestern city of Sinuiju and adjacent areas. State media reported the region was “severely affected” by the flooding. North Korea observers fear the flooding has worsened the country’s chronic food shortages.

“The Red Cross is preparing to offer humanitarian aid, and that is a step forward” in inter-Korean ties, President Lee Myung-bak told ruling party leaders, according to his office.

The North may have decided to release the fishermen in return for South Korea’s offer of help, one analyst said.

“I believe this is the result of informal contacts between the two Koreas,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies. The latest development may foster a “positive atmosphere” for the resumption of formal talks, he said.

The Unification Ministry, however, said there were no negotiations with North Korea over the fishermen. Spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said the aid offer and the fishermen’s release were “separate matters.”

North Korea has relied on foreign food aid since natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy in the mid-1990s and led to a famine estimated to have killed as many as 2 million people.

The two Koreas remain in a state of war because their 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.

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