N. Korea returns 6 detained S. Koreans

North Korea on Friday repatriated six South Koreans who had been detained for entering the country without permission, South Korea's Unification Ministry said.

The six men, aged between 27 and 67, crossed through the border village of Panmunjeom at 4:50 p.m., the ministry said, adding that there is a low probability that people listed as being abducted by the North are among the six.

Ministry spokesman Kim Eui Do said that since the North claimed that all six voluntarily crossed over into the North, their names would not be released for now while they are being questioned.

If they willingly entered North Korea without getting prior approval from the government, they could be prosecuted for violating the National Security Law.

North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said the "illegal entrants" were handed over by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea Red Cross Society at the truce village of Panmunjeom, and received by the South Korean Red Cross after Pyongyang "leniently pardoned them...as they honestly admitted and reflected on their crime."

The body of a South Korean woman was also returned, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.

"According to the North, the woman is the wife of one of the six men, and was killed by her husband in the North," a Unification Ministry official was quoted by Yonhap as saying, adding that South Korea will look into the North's claim that the woman was killed after a row.

South Korea has welcomed the North's "humanitarian" gesture to allow the men to return home, with several opposition parties urging Seoul to engage Pyongyang in talks given the positive development.

The return of the South Koreans is being taken as a possible sign the North is interested in improving ties with the South, after relations were soured on Sept. 21 by the North's postponement of family reunions for people separated during the 1950-53 Korean War.