(2nd LD) S. Korea rescues 8 N.K. sailors, seeking to send them back home

South Korea rescued eight North Korean fishermen drifting on three vessels in waters off the country's east coast earlier this week, officials said Thursday.

South Korea's Navy and Coast Guard salvaged them on Sunday and Monday and they all expressed a desire to go back home, the unification ministry said.

The government said that it has made attempts to contact North Korea over the issue earlier in the day, but the North has not responded.

"We will send a message again to the North later in the day," Jeong Joon-hee, ministry spokesman, said at a regular press briefing. "After taking into account weather conditions, we plan to send them back home on Monday."

South Korea usually sends back North Korean sailors across the de facto inter-Korean maritime border, known as the Northern Limit Line (NLL), when they want to return.

The government said that the sailors were drifting for more than two months on broken vessels after presumably colliding with Chinese vessels in the East Sea.

Citing the account by the fishermen, Jeong said that less than 10 sailors starved to death, without elaborating.

The government said that it used a loudspeaker at the truce village of Panmunjom to notify the North of its repatriation plan as Pyongyang cut off two main communication channels with South Korea in February.

The North's move came in response to Seoul's February decision to shut down a joint industrial complex following Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests early this year.

The spokesman said that the latest incident seems to stem from North Korea's push to develop the fishery industry.

"North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has made a rare order to spur the fishery sector in the winter time," Jeong said. "North Korea's fishery industry is also the main source of hard currency... It is the sector where the North can produce accomplishments in the short term."

The North's leader has visited a fishery station controlled by the military, praising its feat to make an "unprecedented big fish haul," the Korean Central News Agency said Thursday.

The KCNA reported that Kim said his fatigue was relieved after being told that piles of fish in storage will be supplied to each soldier every day until September next year.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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