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6/16/11 North Korea (Reuters) – North Korea on Thursday demanded the return of nine defectors to the South who fled by sailing boat at the weekend, the Red Cross in the South said.

The nine, who reportedly include four children, were picked by a South Korean vessel near an island bombarded by the North in November, an attack that drove ties between the two sides to their lowest point in decades.

The North sent a message through its Red Cross to the South seeking the return of the nine, the South Korean Red Cross said in a statement.

Defections from the impoverished North to the wealthy South have led Pyongyang to blame Seoul for kidnapping people lost at sea and coercing them to stay.

Most of the 21,000 North Koreans who have fled the North for the South, mostly through China, have said they were prompted to run by political persecution and hunger.

The nine were being questioned by authorities in the South.

The two Koreas remain technically at war under a truce that ended hostilities in the 1950-53 Korean War. Their ties sank to the lowest level in decades last year after the sinking of a South Korean navy ship in March. Seoul blames the North for the attack.

In November, the North bombarded the South Korean island off the west coast in what it said was retaliation for provocative military actions by the South. Attempts at dialogue since have failed.

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