Seoul returns five North Korean fishermen rescued from sinking boat

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea on Monday returned five North Korean fishermen rescued last week from their sinking boat off the east coast, officials said.

The repatriation took place just after 4:00 pm (3:00 pm, SIngapore time) at the border truce village of Panmunjom, the South's unification ministry said.

The five were picked up by a South Korean coastguard vessel last Friday and requested to be sent back to the North.

Earlier this month, Seoul angered Pyongyang by refusing to return two North Korean fishermen who asked to stay in the South after their vessel drifted over the maritime border and was picked up.

North Korea does not recognise the disputed maritime boundary, and encroachment by North Korean fishing vessels is quite common.

South Korea's policy is to allow the fishermen to decide whether or not to return to the North.

Hundreds of North Koreans flee their isolated homeland each year.

Most cross into China and then to a third country such as Thailand before coming to the South. Intentional defections across the sea or land border between the two Koreas are rare.