|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 released the seven-man crew of a South Korean fishing boat seized last month, according to the South's coastguard.
The vessel and its crew were seized on August 8 while fishing off North Korea's eastern coast. The North Korean Red Cross had announced that the boat and its men would be handed over on Tuesday morning at a sea border off the same coast.
Quoting a North Korean official, KCNA, the North's state news agency, 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 was 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.
Separately, South Korea's unification ministry said on Tuesday that the North had asked for rice, cement and heavy construction equipment in response to an offer by the South's Red Cross to provide flood relief aid worth $8.3 million.
"If the South is to send flood aid, it will be better that resources and equipment needed for recovery from flood damage be sent along with rice," the ministry quoted the North's message as saying.
Chun Hae-Sung, the ministry's spokesman, said South Korea was considering the request.
Tensions have mounted on the peninsula this year after the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship. South Korea says it was sunk by a North Korean torpedo.
Since then, the US and South Korea have held a series of joint military drills.
In June, China took a public swipe at North Korea after the country's 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 weekto 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 geared up for the meeting of its ruling Workers' Party on this week - the biggest conference of its kind in 30 years - possibly to anoint Kim's youngest son as his successor.