PYONGYANG, North Korea >> Weeping and shaking their fists, North Koreans released last month after being held by South Korea for 50 days claimed Thursday they were beaten, imprisoned and pressured to defect after the South’s coast guard raided and seized their fishing boat.
Speaking publicly for the first time since their return, 10 North Koreans accused the South Korean coast guard of kidnapping their group of 31 men and women. They also said the four North Koreans who stayed behind in the South were being held against their will.
"These people who hit us and disgraced us committed inhumane acts against us," an emotional Ok Song Hyok said, punching the air, during a rare news conference held at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang attended by The Associated Press.
Ok is among 27 North Koreans who returned home through the Demilitarized Zone in late March, nearly two months after what he said was meant to be a one-day fishing expedition. His brother, ship’s captain Ok Song Gwan, is among four North Koreans who Seoul says asked to stay behind.
South Korean officials denied the North Koreans’ allegations.
"What North Korea has claimed is completely untrue and we feel that such allegations are not worthy of a response," Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said Thursday in Seoul.
The tussle over the fishing boat comes amid efforts to get the two Koreas talking again after more than a year of tensions, starting with the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March 2010 and followed by a North Korean artillery attack last November.
International powers also are eager to restart negotiations on ending North Korea’s nuclear program, with ex-President Jimmy Carter and three other former heads of state due to travel to Pyongyang as early as next week to discuss reviving the disarmament talks and humanitarian issues.
The two Koreas fought a bitter three-year war in the 1950s that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, and the Korean peninsula remains divided by a heavily fortified border. The U.S. keeps 28,500 troops in the South to protect against aggression — a presence Pyongyang cites for its need to build nuclear bombs.
The waters off Korea’s west coast remain an area of dispute, with both Koreas claiming the rich fishing waters along the front line as their territory.
Ri Un Gu, a farmer, said the group from South Hwanghae Province set out early one February morning during the lunar new year holiday to catch shellfish with plans to be back with the high tide later that day. But a thick fog enveloped the boat, and huge boulders of ice hampered the journey.
Within hours, three South Korean speedboats appeared suddenly in North Korean waters, prompting a high-speed chase before the speedboats cornered the fishing boat, he said.
Ri said 20 troops in camouflage stormed on board, smashing doors and windows and beating and dragging the men onto the deck. The boat was forced south despite their protests of innocence, he said.
"They invaded our coastal waters illegally and captured us illegally in broad daylight," he said at the news conference attended by state media, including the Korean Central News Agency and Rodong Sinmun, as well as AP, Russian and Chinese media.
Choe Chon Yong, one of six women who appeared at the news conference wearing traditional Korean dress, described the psychological strain of detention. She said they were squeezed into army barracks, the windows covered "so we couldn’t see a single ray of sunshine."
They were blindfolded when taken out for interrogations, with agents stationed in each room, even accompanying them to the bathroom.
Cursing the women, one of the South Koreans told them "I know you’re all telling lies. Just do what you’re told or your bodies will be throw into the ocean naked," she recalled.
One young woman, Kim Gum Hyang, said one of the men tried to press a cross in her hand, which she refused, and later brought her a basket of fruit and sweets, promising that "if you stay in South Korea, you can eat like this all the time."
Such pretty girls, he said, would be able to marry a rich man in the South and do as they please, she said, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief.
Ra Hye Yong said they remained loyal to leader Kim Jong Il, even waking at dawn to bow to a portrait they laid out on a white cloth on his birthday, Feb. 16.
In unison, the 10 stood at the news conference and sang "Where Are You, Dear General," as they said they did that day.
Ok denied that his brother would have chosen willingly to stay in the South, leaving his 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son behind.
"I really believe he never surrendered," he said, his face creased with anger. "If I see them again, I’ll punch them with my fists."
South Korean officials say the boat was seized in South Korean territory. Twenty-seven who asked to return to the North were sent back across the border, while four others are still being questioned as part of routine screening, the Unification Ministry said.
More than 20,000 North Koreans have resettled in the South since the war. Korea’s division left millions separated from family on the other side of the border, with virtually no means of contact.
Associated Press writer Kay Seok contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.