Seoul Thursday rejected a demand by Pyongyang for the immediate return of two North Koreans found adrift in a small boat off South Korea's east coast this week, saying they want to defect.
The South sent a message through a Red Cross channel that the pair expressed a wish to live in the South and Seoul would respect their free will, the unification ministry said.
The decision is likely to stir an angry reaction from the North amid tense cross-border relations.
In a separate case, nine North Koreans who travelled to Japanese waters in a small wooden boat arrived by air Tuesday to settle in South Korea.
Hundreds of North Koreans each year flee hunger and repression in the isolated communist state.
They normally escape on foot to China, hide out and then travel to a third country to seek resettlement in South Korea. Beijing repatriates those whom it catches, calling them economic migrants.
South Korea's foreign minister urged China Wednesday not to repatriate a group of 35 North Korean refugees rounded up by Beijing last week.
The Commission to Help North Korean Refugees, a South Korean Christian group, said the 35 were arrested last week in several cities and sent to a camp in northeast China awaiting deportation to their homeland.
More than 21,700 refugees have arrived in the South since the 1950-1953 war, the vast majority in recent years.
They are granted automatic citizenship but must spend three months in a resettlement and education centre when they arrive.© ANP/AFP