SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea plans to allow six detained South Koreans to return home, officials in Seoul said Thursday, an unusual move that accompanied Pyongyang's separate approval of a visit by South Korean lawmakers to a recently restarted factory park both Koreas run in the North.
Pyongyang's Red Cross sent a letter to the South saying the detained South Koreans will cross over the heavily armed border at the so-called truce village of Panmunjom on Friday, according to a short statement from the South's Unification Ministry, which is responsible for cross-border ties.
The statement says Seoul plans to accept the South Koreans and investigate how they entered North Korea. Seoul provided only scant details, saying they were men ranging in age from 27 to 67. The North's move, which some South Koreans saw as a conciliatory gesture, came as Pyongyang approved a tour next week by 24 South Korean lawmakers of the jointly run Kaesong factory park, located just over the border. The moves come a month after Pyongyang abruptly canceled reunions for families separated during the 1950-53 Korean War.
The Kaesong park is the last remaining inter-Korean project from a previous era of rapprochement. It reopened last month after Pyongyang had withdrawn its workers in April during a period of unusually high tensions that saw North Korea threaten South Korea and the United States with nuclear strikes and vow to restart nuclear fuel production.
South Korean companies that operate in Kaesong welcomed the lawmakers' trip to meet with South Korean managers and discuss operations, saying in a statement that lingering uncertainties about Kaesong are hurting business. The lawmakers aren't scheduled to meet with North Korean officials during Wednesday's visit.
Many analysts say North Korea takes Kaesong's resumption seriously because it believes it could help draw outside investment and revive its struggling economy, one of leader Kim Jong Un's top stated goals. His other major goal is increased nuclear production. But there are considerable outside doubts about whether foreign investors will risk operating in the North.
South Korea estimates that more than 500 South Koreans have been kidnapped and detained by North Korea since the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula still technically in a state of war.
While it's not clear why the South Koreans to be released Friday went North, or why Pyongyang is releasing them now, there's media speculation in Seoul that they may have either voluntarily crossed the border or been captured near it. North Korea said in 2010 that it was investigating four South Koreans for allegedly illegally entering the country. Seoul says it has repeatedly asked Pyongyang to confirm the four citizens' identities but has received no reply.
South Koreans visiting North Korea without government approval can be punished by up to 10 years in prison under South Korea's National Security Law.
Associated Press writer Youkyung Lee contributed to this report.