Neither Seoul nor Pyongyang provided many details about the men, who ranged in age from 27 to 67. But many South Koreans perceive the unexpected move as a conciliatory gesture after the North’s abrupt cancellation last month of emotional reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War—and a possible forerunner to proposals to restart talks on stalled cooperative projects.
Before they were scrapped, the planned reunions had been seen as an example of easing tensions between the rivals, who had turned to diplomacy after trading threats of war in March and April.
Pyongyang also wants talks with Seoul on resuming lucrative, jointly run tours to a North Korean mountain resort, which provided a rare legitimate source of hard currency before they were suspended after the 2008 shooting death of a South Korean tourist.
Seoul has so far been resistant to discussing the tours’ resumption.
The South Koreans’ return Friday came as Pyongyang separately approved a visit next week by 24 South Korean lawmakers to a recently restarted, jointly run factory park in the North. The Kaesong complex is another source of foreign currency for impoverished North Korea and the last remaining inter-Korean project from a previous era of rapprochement.
The South Koreans crossed over the heavily armed border at the so-called truce village of Panmunjom a day after Pyongyang’s Red Cross sent a letter to the South announcing they would be released.
South Korea said intelligence officials will investigate how the men entered the North.
Pyongyang says the men had voluntarily crossed into the North, according to Kim Eui-do, a spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for cross-border ties.
It’s a crime for South Koreans to travel to North Korea without government permission, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Hundreds of South Koreans are estimated to 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 officials weren’t discussing the men’s identities, speculation in Seoul has focused on the possibility that they were Christian missionaries—many of whom operate along the China-North Korea border, helping defectors.