Pyongyang says it would repatriate a South Korean boat and its crew which had been captured in North Korean waters. It comes as US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was in South Korea for talks on the standoff with the North.
North Korea said it would return the vessel to the maritime border between the North and the South on Friday morning.
Pyongyang forces seized the boat last Saturday, after the fishermen "deliberately" and "illegally" intruded in North Korean waters, the state-run KCNA agency said in a report. However, North Korea decided to release the 10-person crew, which included seven South Koreans and three Vietnamese citizens, for humanitarian reasons.
The officials took into account that "all the crewmen honestly admitted their offense, repeatedly apologizing and asking for leniency," KCNA said in an English-language report. The move could be seen as a token of diplomacy after recent tensions between the North and the South.
In turn, Seoul said it was a "relief" that the sailors would return. South Korean officials will question the crew upon their return, said a Unification Ministry official.
US's Mattis visits the buffer zone
North Korean fishing boats are known to stray south of the maritime border, often after breaking down or running out of fuel. In such cases, Seoul deploys intelligence officers to interrogate the crew, and they are allowed to return to the North if they choose to do so.
A South Korean boat wandering north is rare. In 2010, Pyongyang returned a malfunctioning South Korean ship after holding it for roughly one month.
Pyongyang's non-hostile tone and the proposed repatriation come at a time of high tensions between the rival nations. Seoul's key ally, the US, moved to confront Pyongyang diplomatically over North Korea's repeated nuclear tests.
The crisis saw US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visit the Korean peninsula on Friday, inspecting the heavily fortified buffer zone between South and North Korea. Mattis is also set to meet top South Korean defense officials in Seoul and the commanders of American troops stationed in the Asian country.
dj/ng (Reuters, dpa)