SEOUL — Six South Koreans repatriated from North Korea over the weekend said they had fled to the North through China in recent years to escape bankruptcies and family troubles in the South and in search of a better life in the North, the South Korean news media and government officials said Monday.
North Korea handed over the six men, aged 27 to 67, at the border Friday. It was an unusual gesture from the North, which had in the past welcomed defectors from the South and used them for propaganda. Some analysts saw the men’s repatriation as a North Korean overture to ease tensions with the South.
After returning home, all six men told investigators that they had entered the North through its border with China between 2009 and 2012, said a South Korean government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity until the investigation was over. He also said the remains of a woman returned Friday from the North were of the wife of one of the six men.
The South Korean news media quoted anonymous government sources as saying that one of the six had posted pro-North Korean messages on the Internet while in the South. When the North’s main party paper, Rodong Sinmun, quoted one of his online postings, he reportedly decided to defect to the North, hoping that he would be treated well there.
Another man hoped for treatment for kidney stones in the North, the Yonhap news agency and other South Korean news media said. But all six ended up going through between 14 and 45 months of interrogations by North Korean authorities and living in virtual house arrest in guest houses, the reports said.
The 65-year-old husband of the dead woman told investigators that he strangled her and tried but failed to kill himself in what he described as an aborted suicide pact, they said.
The press officers at the Unification Ministry and intelligence service of the South Korean government said they could not confirm those details. On Friday, North Korea said it “leniently pardoned” the South Koreans on humanitarian grounds.
South Korean officials had said earlier that the six would probably face prosecution for violating the National Security Law, which bans South Koreans from visiting the North without government approval.
About 25,000 North Koreans have defected to the South over the past two decades to escape hunger and political repression in their homeland. Nearly all of them fled through China because the North-South border is sealed and tightly guarded by minefields, barbed wire fences, and soldiers on both sides.
The South Korean news reports said the six men entered North Korea by swimming across border rivers from China or by walking when the rivers froze in winter.
Kim Eui-do, the Unification Ministry spokesman, said last week that it was impossible to find out how many South Koreans had entered the North through China. But it is widely considered rare for South Koreans to defect to the North.