A fishing boat sails past a South Korean navy MSB (Movement Sea Base) off the South Korea-controlled Yeonpyeong island near the waters of the Yellow Sea disputed with North Korea. Photo: AFP/Kim Jae-hwan

As the US continues a war of words and military posturing vs. North Korea, Pyongyang has inexplicably released a South Korean fishing boat that allegedly strayed into its waters.

North Korea said Friday it’s repatriating the vessel and its crew in a “humanitarian” step after it supposedly entered its territory, a Yonhap news agency report said.

Intercepts of South Korean fishing boats by northern patrol boats are periodic occurrences. The fate of the vessels and treatment of crew members varies and is often used by Pyongyang to send diplomatic signals to the South. It isn’t clear if this is the case with the latest incident.

“The investigation results proved that the boat and its crew deliberately intruded into the DPRK waters for fishing,” said North Korea’s official KCNA news agency.

“However, the DPRK side decided to repatriate the boat and its crew from the humanitarian point of view, taking into account the fact that all the crewmen honestly admitted their offense, repeatedly apologizing and asking for leniency,” it added.

Yonhap says North Korean authorities allowed the ship to return home at 6 p.m. Friday, Pyongyang time, or 5:30 p.m. in Seoul.

Analysts and news media have closely monitored official statements and other gestures by Pyongyang that might indicate a softening in its standoff with the US and its allies over its nuclear weapons program. US officials have said they are in contact with North Korea amid reports of backchannel diplomacy moves to peacefully resolve the crisis.

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