Seoul: South Korea repatriated on Sunday 27 of 31 North Koreans who had drifted to the South across the tense sea border last month, Seoul officials said.
The North Koreans were sent home in their boat across the border off the peninsula`s west coast at about 0400 GMT, the South`s coast guard said, after bad weather and a crippled vessel delayed their return.
"Now they are officially gone to the North...the North`s patrol ship escorted their boat," a coastal guard spokesman said.
The other four who have expressed a wish to stay were taking steps to officially defect to the capitalist South, said a spokeswoman for Seoul`s unification ministry, which handles cross-border affairs.
The fishing boat carrying the 11 North Korean men and 20 women drifted across the disputed Yellow Sea border in thick fog on February 05.
The communist North had previously refused to accept the return of the 27, saying it wanted all 31 people or none at all. It alleged the South had put pressure on group members to stay to try to fuel cross-border tensions.
But Seoul said it has no intention of sending home the two men and two women would-be defectors, saying their free choice to stay had been "confirmed by objective and fair measures".
The North even released rare video footage online earlier this month, showing interviews with the defectors` families, who appealed to the four to come home.
Families of defectors often face reprisals such as a spell in a prison camp or forced relocation to a rural area, according to many North Korean defectors who have settled in the South.
Pyongyang changed its stance on March 15 and sent a message to Seoul asking for the 27 sailors to be returned "in consideration of the feelings" of their families at home.
It was not known whether the North retracted its demand for the unconditional return of the other four.
Cross-border relations have been icy since the South accused the North of torpedoing a warship in March 2010 with the loss of 46 lives. Pyongyang denies the charge.
Tensions flared again after Pyongyang shelled a border island in November in its first attack on a civilian area since the Korean War, killing four South Koreans.