Pyongyang’s growing calls for the repatriation of former North Korean restaurant workers who came to South Korea in 2016 may be an obstacle for Seoul at high-level talks Friday, experts said.
North Korea on Tuesday said a decision to send back the defectors would prove the South Korean government’s “sincerity” toward sustained development of inter-Korean ties and peace on the peninsula. The announcement followed the same demand made by the North’s Red Cross Society on May 19.
On the North’s recent ramp up of demands, the South’s Ministry of Unification on Wednesday avoided issuing direct comments and instead said it is inappropriate to discuss North Korea’s intentions behind such moves in a public manner. It also reiterated both Koreas’ willingness to resolve issues through talks.
With both Koreas yet to implement key agreements reached at the inter-Korean summit on April 27, experts are voicing concerns that the North is using the issue as a leverage to gain a better bargaining position.
“North Korea is likely to raise the issue at Friday’s high-level talks and tie it to the agreements it is relatively unwilling to implement, such as the reunion of families (separated by the 1950-53 Korean War)” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy.
At the April summit, both Koreas agreed to hold a Red Cross meeting to map out plans for the reunion of separated families, but the North has yet to give a solid response. Seoul has been highlighting the urgency of the reunion, which was last held in 2015, citing the old age of the family members.
Along with the reunion event, laying the ground for inter-Korean economic cooperation is expected to be raised as a main topic at Friday’s discussions. According to Shin, the North’s desire to revive cross-border economic projects would prevent the issue of defectors from becoming a major distraction at the meeting.
“It will raise the issue, but to the level it won’t blow up to become an obstacle throughout the entire negotiation process. It is coming to the table with an agenda.” he said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced last month the completion of the “byungjin policy” of simultaneous pursuit of both nuclear power and economic growth, and that he would shift full attention to achieving economic prosperity instead.
South Korea-US joint military exercises may also be raised at Friday’s meeting, experts said. North Korea initially agreed to hold a high-level meeting on May 16, but canceled it at the last minute, citing the then-ongoing Max Thunder air drill. Pyongyang, which has often lambasted the exercises as rehearsals for invasion, said that the drill was against the spirit of the Panmunjeom Declaration.
“South Korea expressing willingness to discuss reducing the size of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise in summer and discussions about blocking the deployment of US strategic assets (may help alleviate the mood),” said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Far East Institute.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry said there has been no change in plans as of Tuesday, while noting the drills are annual exercises that are purely defensive in nature.
The issue of the 12 restaurant workers and their manager took a new turn earlier this month when local broadcaster JTBC aired an interview with the manager, who claimed that the South’s National Intelligence Service had orchestrated the defection. Liberal civic groups in the South said that the previous administration had used them for political purposes ahead of the general elections in 2016.
Pyongyang has accused Seoul’s spy agency of abducting the group and has repeatedly demanded their repatriation, while the South Korean government maintains that they came of their free will. Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon recently denied speculation that the NIS had orchestrated the defection, at a full session of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee.
Seoul is currently in the process of reexamining the group’s arrival, which has sparked concern and anger among the defector population here, who consider themselves South Korean citizens.
Friday’s high-level meeting comes ahead of a possible summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un on June 12 in Singapore.
By Jung Min-kyung (firstname.lastname@example.org