South Korea intercepts boat carrying North Korean defectors

Rare defection by sea comes after nine North Koreans crossed the maritime border in May.

A boat carrying suspected North Korean defectors has been intercepted by South Korean authorities near the Northern Limit Line, the countries' maritime border [File: Damir Sagolj/Reuters]

A group of North Koreans have defected to South Korea by crossing the sea border in a small wooden boat, South Korea’s military said.

The boat was intercepted by South Korean authorities on Tuesday near Sokcho, a city about 51km (32 miles) northeast of Seoul, after being spotted near the countries’ maritime border, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

Four North Korean occupants expressed their wish to defect to South Korea, the government-funded Yonhap News Agency and Korean Broadcasting System said, citing unnamed government officials.

More than 33,000 North Koreans have fled their repressive homeland for the liberal democratic South, where they are entitled to citizenship and financial support after being vetted by the intelligence services.

Arrivals in the South have dropped sharply since the COVID-19 pandemic, when Pyongyang ramped up border controls.

Defections by sea are rare, with most defectors fleeing the North through the porous border with China, where they face the risk of arrest and deportation.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry earlier this month said it had raised its concerns with China after Chinese authorities repatriated a “large number” of North Koreans living in the northeastern provinces of Jilin and Liaoning.

Beijing, which regards North Korean defectors as economic migrants, said there was “no such thing as so-called ‘North Korean defectors’ in China”.

In May, nine North Koreans defected after crossing the western sea boundary in a fishing boat.

In 2019, South Korea’s former President Moon Jae-in drew criticism from rights groups after his administration repatriated two North Korean fishermen suspected of murdering 16 shipmates while crossing the sea border.

A South Korean court in February indicted four top officials, including Moon’s head of national intelligence, for allegedly abusing their authority in relation to the repatriations.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies