May 20 (UPI) — Two North Koreans crossed the tense western sea border into South Korea on a small boat earlier Saturday, officials have said, the latest in a string of defections by North Koreans in recent years.
Previously, the government said the pair was comprised of one soldier and one civilian, but corrected the statement in the afternoon, saying that both were civilian men in their 40s. There had been misunderstanding of one defector’s identity, the government said.
A South Korean Navy vessel spotted a small wooden boat carrying the two men in the waters north of South Korea’s Baengnyeong Island near the western inter-Korean sea border, a Defense Ministry official said.
The pair told the South Korean military that they were willing to defect to South Korea.
The South Korean Coast Guard said its boat picked the two up after being notified by the military. The Coast Guard later handed the North Koreans over to South Korean intelligence officials in Incheon, a port city just west of Seoul, for questioning, a Coast Guard official said, without elaborating.
Repeated calls to the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s spy agency, seeking comment went unanswered on Saturday.
The latest defection came just weeks after the leaders of the two Koreas held a summit and reached an agreement on a wide range of measures to ease tensions and pursue various economic cooperation projects.
It remains unclear what influence, if any, the defection will have on the thawing relations between the two Koreas.
South Korea has a longstanding policy of accepting any North Korean defectors who want to live in the South and repatriating any North Koreans who stray into the South if they want to return.
South Korea is now home to more than 30,000 North Korean defectors, and the flow of defectors continues amid chronic food shortages and harsh political oppression.