N Korea 'to free' fishing boat crew
Seven men and their South Korean vessel set to be handed over at a sea border on Tuesday.
Last Modified: 06 Sep 2010 12:04 GMT
For North Korea's Kim, at left, China's help and diplomatic strength are vital for his dynastic succession [AFP]

The North Korean government has said it plans to release the seven-man crew of a South Korean fishing boat seized last month.

The vessel and its crew were seized on August 8 while fishing off North Korea's eastern coast. The North Korean Red Cross said the boat and its men will be handed over on Tuesday morning at a sea border off the same coast.

Quoting a North Korean official, state news agency KCNA reported on Monday that the incident was seen as "an intolerable infringement upon the sovereignty of (North Korea). But it was decided to send the boat and its crew back to South Korea from the compatriotic and humanitarian points of view".

The crew, which includes three Chinese, will be returned to South Korea after they "admitted the seriousness of their act and gave assurances that they would never repeat such an act".

This is the second instance of North Korean authorities finding wayward South Korean fishermen in their waters. In July of 2009, four South Korean fishermen were held for nearly a month after they strayed into North Korean waters. They, too, were picked up on the country's squid-rich east coast.

Tensions have mounted on the peninsula this year after the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship - Seoul says it was sunk by a North Korean torpedo - and a series of military drills by the US and South Korea.

And in June, Beijing took a public swipe at Pyongyang after North Korean border guards shot and killed three Chinese suspected of smuggling. North Korea apologised and told China it would punish those responsible.

China has voiced concern about the detention of its nationals by the North, which depends heavily on Beijing's largesse to keep its impoverished economy afloat.

Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, paid an unscheduled visit to China last week to reassure Beijing, whose help and diplomatic strength are vital in support of of his dynastic succession.

In a bid to relieve regional tensions, Kim has also reportedly informed Hu Jintao, China's president, that Pyongyang is open to returning to discussions over its nuclear programme.

The decision to release the crew comes as the North gears up this week for the biggest meeting of its ruling Workers' Party in 30 years, possibly to anoint Kim's youngest son as his successor.

North Korea has not responded to an offer by South Korea to ship emergency relief in the aftermath of heavy rains that flooded farmland and homes.

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