SEOUL, South Korea — Four South Korean fishermen held by North Korea after their boat strayed into northern waters will be released, and families divided for decades after the Korean War will get a rare chance to meet next month – the latest signs tensions are easing on the divided Korean peninsula.
North Korea announced Friday it would hand over the fishermen and their boat to South Korean authorities across the eastern sea border on Saturday afternoon, Seoul's Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said. Chun welcomed the decision, but urged North Korea not to detain South Koreans in the future.
"I am very pleased and it's beyond expression," Lee Ah-na, the wife of the boat's captain, told The Associated Press from the eastern port of Geojin, just south of the border.
The announcement came hours after the two Koreas agreed to hold a new round of reunions next month for families separated by the Korean War – the first in nearly two years.
Red Cross officials from the two sides concluded three days of talks at the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort with a deal to hold six days of temporary reunions involving 200 families from Sept. 26, according to a joint statement.
Millions of families were separated by the Korean War, which ended in 1953 with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty. No mail, telephone or e-mail exchanges exist between ordinary citizens across the Korean border.
Following their first summit in 2000, the two Koreas regularly held family reunions until late 2007. Then, ties frayed badly after conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office last year with hard-line policies such as linking aid to North Korea's nuclear disarmament.
North Korea has reached out in recent weeks to Seoul and Washington following a series of provocations, including nuclear and missile tests, and international sanctions to punish its communist regime for the defiant moves banned under U.N. resolutions.
Earlier this month, the North freed two American journalists and a South Korean worker after more than four months of detention. It also sent a delegation to Seoul to mourn the death of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
South Korean media reported this past week that North Korea invited Washington's two top envoys on the North to visit in what would be their first nuclear talks since President Barack Obama took office.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters Thursday that the U.S. had not received a formal invitation from the North. He also said special envoy Stephen Bosworth plans to travel to Asia soon, but will not go to North Korea.
The Choson Sinbo, a Tokyo-based newspaper considered a mouthpiece for the North Korean regime, said Friday that inter-Korean relations can improve if Seoul "grabs the extended hand" of the North.
Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates seized a cargo ship bound for Iran carrying banned rocket-propelled grenades and other arms from North Korea, the first such seizure since sanctions against the North were tightened, diplomats and officials told the AP on Friday.
The seizure was carried out in accordance with tough new U.N. Security Council sanctions meant to derail North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but which also ban the North's sale of any conventional arms.
"We can confirm that the UAE detained a North Korean vessel containing illicit cargo," a Western diplomat told the AP.
Associated Press writers Jae-soon Chang and Wanjin Park in Seoul and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.