SEOUL — In an surprise move that could help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea said Thursday that it would release six South Koreans it has been holding in detention, according to South Korean officials.
The Red Cross of North Korea told its South Korean counterpart that the six would be returned to the South on Friday at the border village of Panmunjom, the South Korean Unification Ministry said in a statement.
It was unclear who the detainees were. The ministry said that they were South Korean men ages 27 to 67, but that it was unclear how long they had been in the North or how they had gotten there.
Pyongyang said in February 2010 that it was holding four South Koreans for illegal entry, but it never responded to Seoul’s request that they be identified and released. In June of this year, the North said it was holding “several” South Koreans for illegally entering the country, but it did not elaborate.
Thousands of South Koreans, most of them fishermen, are said to have been taken to the North in the decades since the Korean War; more than 500 of them have not returned, though Pyongyang denies holding them against their will.
South Korea welcomed the announcement Thursday. “Although it is belated, we consider it a good thing that the North has decided to take this humanitarian measure,” the Unification Ministry said in a statement. “We will get custody of our six citizens, verify their identities, and find out how and why they entered the North.”