Seoul: North Korea on Wednesday threatened to retaliate should the South fail to return three of its citizens rescued from a drifting fishing boat.
A South Korean coastguard vessel picked up the five fishermen last Saturday after their boat was found drifting across the sea border off the eastern coast.
Three of them expressed a desire to live in the South while the two others wanted to return home.
Seoul consequently sent a message to Pyongyang, suggesting it would return the two who called for repatriation through the border truce village of Panmunjom.
But the North has rejected the South`s offer, insisting all five should be sent home.
"If the South keeps holding them against their will, we would take stern countermeasures", the North`s Red Cross chief Kang Su-Rin was quoted as saying by Pyongyang`s official website, Uriminzokkiri.
"We will watch the South`s attitude".
He did not specify what actions the North would take in retaliation.
He attacked the South for "being persistent in forcing" North Koreans who stray into the South to "defect", calling for an immediate repatriation of all the five people.
South Korea`s policy is to allow stray North Korean fishermen to decide whether or not to return to the North.
Seoul repatriated two North Korean fishermen rescued off the east coast in February and five others last month after investigators confirmed their wish to return home.
So far about 28,000 North Koreans have resettled in the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The North usually sends home South Korean fishermen rescued in its waters, although some have been held there, apparently against their will.