N. Korea to return 6 S. Koreans citizens through Panmunjom

SEOUL, Oct. 25 (Yonhap) -- North Korea was to hand over six South Korean citizens at the neutral border village of Panmunjom Friday, a rare move that has raised speculations that the country may be trying to mend fences with its southern rival.

A government source said that the six men will cross over into South Korea at around 4:20 p.m. and will be taken to a secure location where they are to be questioned about how they came to be in the communist country.

The exact identities, other than the family names of the six, have been withheld, but the Ministry of Unification confirmed Thursday, when Pyongyang first announced they were sending the men back, that they were not on the list of people abducted by the North.

The oldest, who is 67, has been identified by his surname Yun, while the youngest named Song is 27.

"None seem to be notable figures," the official said. He added that it is highly likely that they entered the country over the Chinese-North Korean border. He added that Seoul could not say at the moment that they had been forcibly abducted.

The insider said the North's media reported it was questioning four South Koreans who entered the country illegally on Feb. 26, 2010, while there was a separate report that one man entered the North a month earlier by crossing the Tumen River from China's Yanbian region.

"The men will be questioned with appropriate measures taken depending on the results of the inquiry," he said.

If they crossed over voluntarily, they can face criminal charges for violating the country's National Security Law.

The unification ministry, meanwhile, said it welcomed the North's decision to send back the South Korean citizens. This view was echoed by political parties, with the opposition urging Seoul to use the development to engage the North in a new round of talks.

Local North Korean watchers also said that regardless of the identities of the men, the fact that the North is sending people they held for some time is a sign of change and may even lead to Pyongyang making other proposals.

"As a follow-up to the return of the six men, the North could call for family reunions that they postponed, and propose talks to restart tours to the Mount Kumgang resort," a researcher at a state-run think tank speculated.

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