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[News Focus] Two Koreas at odds over return of N.K. citizens

Four North Koreans who have expressed their wish to stay here after their boat accidentally drifted into South Korean waters are becoming the latest source of tension between the two Koreas.

North Korea repeated over the weekend its demand for the return of all 31 nationals who strayed into South Korea on Feb. 5, refusing to accept Seoul’s decision to let four of them stay.

While Seoul claims the decision was made in accordance with international law, Pyongyang accuses its rival of influencing the two women and two men who said they wished to stay after being questioned for nearly a month.

The communist regime is sensitive about the issue, apparently fearing the influence it may have on its starving population of 24 million, analysts say.

The impoverished North has been escalating efforts to keep its people isolated from outside news as anti-government movements have spread across the Middle East and North Africa.

Maintaining political stability and the loyalty of its people is becoming more important for North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il as he prepares to hand over the regime to his youngest and inexperienced son Jong-un.

Should Seoul ignore its demand for the return of all 31 people, the North will use “every possible means” to bring everyone home, Pyongyang said in its latest message carried by its official Korean Central News Agency.

“The South Korean authorities are forcing the detained guiltless inhabitants to separate from their families by appeasement and pressure,” it said, warning the issue would “seriously affect” inter-Korean ties.

The boat carrying 11 men and 20 women drifted across the inter-Korean border in thick fog on Feb. 5. Of them, 27 expressed their wish to return home while four, including the ship’s captain, asked to stay.

South Korea attempted to repatriate the 27 people last week via the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjeom but Pyongyang refused to accept them.

The North Koreans will be sent back to the border again Monday, Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles affairs with North Korea, said.

“We are firm to respect the free will of the four people and keep them here. North Korea’s request is unacceptable under international law,” a ministry official said on condition of anonymity.

“North Korea must cooperate,” the official said.

The latest feud between the two Koreas takes place weeks after their defense talks broke down over Pyongyang’s refusal to admit to the two deadly attacks it made against Seoul last year.

North Korea has also been upping threats against Seoul for conducting joint military drills with the U.S. near the tense sea border.

While South Korea insists the two attacks must be included in the agenda of higher-level military talks between the two Koreas, the North Korean delegation refused last month to further discuss the issue.

Pyongyang either denies or blames on Seoul the March torpedoing of a South Korean warship and the November bombarding of a border island. The two incidents left dozens of South Korean sailors, two marines and two civilians dead.

While maintaining tough rhetoric, North Korea again called for unconditional inter-Korean talks with Seoul over the weekend, indicating urgency to thaw ties in the face of escalating food shortages.

The Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, said Seoul should accept dialogue without attaching preconditions for the sake of better ties.

South Korea must show a sincere effort to ease tensions, the paper said, adding that the North was only interested in improving ties and creating a mood of peace and reconciliation.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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