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N. Koreans seeking asylum weigh on inter-Korean ties

Seoul plans to send back 27 N. Koreans over weekend as 6 new asylum-seekers arrive


Six North Koreans, including a grandson of the communist state’s patriotic martyr, are seeking asylum in South Korea, just days after the two rivals patched up a conflict over the repatriation of dozens of others who accidentally strayed here last month.

The arrival of North Korean nationals comes at a bad time, analysts say, as the two Koreas are scheduled to hold talks next week over a potentially dangerous volcano and are struggling to overcome thorny issues to reopen a regular dialogue channel.

Nine people, including six North Koreans and three Chinese of Korean ethnicity, arrived at South Korea’s Gunsan Port aboard a small boat from China on Thursday evening, claiming to be refugees.

The six North Koreans include three men, two women and one girl, while the three Chinese of Korean ethnicity are two women and one man.

The Chinese, currently going through separate investigations, may be illegal immigrants seeking work in South Korea without proper documentation and subject to deportation, the Seoul government said.

Last month, a boat carrying 31 North Koreans accidentally drifted into South Korean waters in thick fog, four among them asking to defect.

The communist North, which reacts sensitively to the defection of its people, had accused South Korea of influencing the decision of the four nationals, asking to meet with them to verify whether they really wished to stay behind.

In an apparent effort to mend ties with the South, Pyongyang asked for the repatriation of the 27 people last week, softening its previous stance to not accept anyone unless Seoul also returned the four wanting to defect.

The South Korean Red Cross said it plans to return them Sunday via sea as high waves are expected to calm over the weekend, the Unification Ministry said. Seoul has been trying to send the 27 people back since last week, but delayed the process due to bad weather.

Among the North Koreans who came here this week, one of them is known to be the grandson of a well-known patriotic martyr who also appears in North Korean textbooks. Reportedly well-acquainted with leader Kim Jong-il’s family, the father of the asylum-seeker also served as a member of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party.

Pastor Kim Sung-eun, a member of a religious group that reportedly helped the boat safely enter South Korea, told a local media outlet that most of the refugees are “people who have serious doubts” about the Kim regime.

North Korea has remained silent about six more of its people seeking to flee to South Korea. The Seoul government also declined to comment on the issue saying “the people will be dealt with under the law.”

South Korea has remained firm about keeping all asylum seekers in its territory and protecting them from the ironfisted North Korean regime, citing international practice and humanitarian reasons.

Despite harsh punishment for defection, a growing number of North Koreans have been fleeing to the wealthier South, indicating the deepening food shortages and instability in the communist state.

A growing number of young North Koreans have also began to question an ongoing power succession from the ailing leader Kim to his youngest and inexperienced son, sources close to Pyongyang say.

More than 20,000 North Koreans are said to have defected since the 1950-53 Korean War which ended in a temporary armistice.

North Korean defectors are seen as another possible source of tension between the two Koreas, who are technically still at war and exchanged fire as recently as November.

During the defense talks with Pyongyang last month, Seoul demanded the communist state’s apology for conducting two deadly attacks last year.

While apparently wanting to resume dialogue with its rival South as well as other regional powers to secure aid of food and fuel, North Korea continues to deny responsibility for two attacks last year that killed dozens of South Koreans.

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