Twenty-seven of the 31 North Koreans who strayed into the South Korean waters aboard a fishing boat a month ago, are stuck in limbo ― Pyongyang refuses to take them back unless Seoul sends them all. The other four desire to remain in the South. Is Pyongyang throwing tantrums when it says the South is holding them against their will?
When South Korean officials took the 27 North Koreans to the truce village of Panmunjeom on the Friday morning, North Korea refused to take them, demanding that the entire crew be sent back along with the fishing boat. North Korea had not responded to repeated telephone calls until it told the South Korean officials shortly before 4 p.m., the time when the truce village is usually closed, to wait longer. When it sent its final message of the day at 6 p.m., all it did was repeat its previous demand
It is not the first time that members of a group of North Korean fishermen have defected to the South after straying into the South Korean waters. On those occasions, Pyongyang took the rest without much ado. As such, Friday’s episode undoubtedly had South Korean officials scratching their heads.
But the handling of the 31 North Koreans has been anything but unblemished. Two days after they were taken into South Korean custody, the military said all of them desired to go back to the North. But on Thursday, the South Korean government announced that four of them wanted to remain in the South. Hindsight shows greater caution was needed.
Apparently, the North Koreans changed their mind after being exposed to a free and prosperous society, as explained by South Korean officials. If the North has any doubt, all it needs to do is send an official to confirm their wishes.