A South Korean soldier stands guard last year at the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

A South Korean soldier stands guard last year at the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. (James Kimber/Stars and Stripes)

SEOUL, South Korea — Eight North Korean fishermen spent weeks lost at sea. Now they’re adrift in a diplomatic limbo.

The fishermen all said they wanted to go home after being rescued by South Korean maritime police earlier this week, but Seoul has been unable to reach the other side to arrange their return, officials said.

The case offers an unusual glimpse into the communication methods used between the two enemies, which are divided by the world’s most heavily fortified border and remain technically at war.

When the North Koreans didn’t pick up the phone, the South resorted to a form of shouting: broadcasting the request across the Demilitarized Zone via loudspeakers.

Negotiators sometimes meet during times of crisis in the truce village of Panmunjom, which is in the buffer zone established after the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty. Otherwise, communication between the two sides is usually limited to blaring propaganda at each other across the no-man’s land.

North and South Korea have established telephone lines to coordinate military and humanitarian matters as well as to exchange information on private airline traffic.

However, the lines were cut after South Korea closed the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex as tensions rose following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch earlier this year.

The Unification Ministry, which oversees inter-Korean relations, said it tried calling the North Koreans via the hotlines, but nobody picked up. So the request was broadcast via loudspeakers at Panmunjom on Thursday afternoon, ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee told a news briefing.

He said it is believed the North got the message because soldiers were in the area to hear it.

Another official said South Korea never actually severed the phone lines so it was able to place the calls. The hotline maintained by the Red Cross has limited hours, but those used by the military in the Yellow Sea are available around the clock.

“There has been no response from North Korea,” Jeong said. “But as mentioned in the notice, we are planning to repatriate them at sea on Monday morning.”

If a North Korean ship doesn’t appear, the government will try to find another way to repatriate the men, including possibly using a land route, Jeong said.

The ministry said the men had set out in three separate fishing boats from North Korea in mid-September, mid-November and late November. Some 10 other crew members were believed to have starved to death based on statements from the others, but no bodies were found, Jeong said Thursday.

The ships apparently suffered from engine malfunctions and one apparently collided with a Chinese fishing boat, Jeong said, without providing more details.

North Korean sailors found drifting at sea have been returned home in the past, but the rescues on Sunday and Monday were unusual in scope.

The last time fishermen were repatriated was last December and took only a matter of days, the ministry said. Twitter: @kimgamel

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