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S. Korean detainees unlikely to be dealt at Red Cross talks

The release of six South Korean detainees in North Korea is unlikely to be discussed at Friday’s inter-Korean Red Cross talks, as the reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War is set to be at the top of the agenda.

Friday’s talks are expected to address a clause inked in the agreement reached at the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on April 27, when both vowed “to swiftly resolve the humanitarian issues that resulted from the division of the nation.” Since the summit, the two Koreas have been holding a flurry of talks over a wide range of subjects to implement the Panmunjeom Agreement. 

Kim Jung-wook, one of the six South Korean detainees in North Korea (Yonhap)
Kim Jung-wook, one of the six South Korean detainees in North Korea (Yonhap)

Park Kyung-seo, president of the Korean Red Cross here, who was tapped by Seoul to lead a four-member delegation on Friday told reporters on Thursday that he has no intentions of raising the detainee issue on concerns that such a move may negatively affect “the broader objectives.”

“We will come back after having good consultations with the North on a set of humanitarian issues, in particular, on how to resolve the agony of 57,000 separated families,” Park said.

The detainee issue regained attention when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang last month and returned home with three American detainees, ahead of the summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim in June.

But the liberal Moon administration has been cautious in confirming whether the Red Cross talks will deal with other humanitarian issues such as the fate of the South Korean citizens held in North Korea and Pyongyang’s demand for the repatriation of 12 North Korean restaurant workers who defected to the South in 2016.

Instead, Seoul has been highlighting the revival of the reunion of separated families, which was last held in October 2015, as a priority issue to be discussed at the meeting. The Panmunjeom Declaration states that the reunion will take place this year on Aug. 15, which marks National Liberation Day.

Speaking at a press briefing after the June 1 high-level talks, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said that the issue of South Korean detainees was discussed with North Korea at the meeting and that Pyongyang authorities were “reviewing” the matter.

Such issues could be raised on Friday, experts said, but it would complicate the mood of the meeting and is likely to remain unresolved for the time being.

“In general, the inter-Korean humanitarian issues are linked with the North Korean workers (who came to South Korea in 2015),” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

“It would be difficult for issues surrounding the release of the detainees to be resolved at the Red Cross talks. The reunion is a little different in nature because the North officially mentioned it in the Panmunjeom Declaration and the North has always treated it as a kind of ‘gift’ to South Korea rather than treating it as an independent issue -- they will probably implement it.”

Koh also pointed out the complications surrounding the nationality of the South Korean detainees. While three are believed to be serving life imprisonment of hard labor on charges of plotting to overthrow the Kim Jong-un regime, the rest are thought to be North Korean defectors who obtained South Korean citizenship.

North Korean defectors in South Korea have always been a sensitive issue -- an elephant in the room for the two Koreas. 

Korean Red Cross President Park Kyung-seo (left) and Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon. (Yonhap)
Korean Red Cross President Park Kyung-seo (left) and Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon. (Yonhap)

In recent months, North Korea ramped up its demand for the repatriation of the restaurant workers, despite an ongoing inter-Korean detente, claiming that they were abducted by South Korean authorities in China and forcibly brought here. Seoul has dismissed the claims, saying the North Koreans defected of their free will.

The North did not send the roster of its delegation to the South as of Thursday afternoon, according to a Unification Ministry official, who requested anonymity. But the official brushed it off merely as a situation where they must “wait a little longer,” indicating Seoul‘s belief that the meeting will be held as planned.

Meanwhile, Tomas Ojea Quintana, special rapporteur on North Korea for the United Nations, told Voice of America on Thursday that though North Korea has the right to request the repatriation, it is inappropriate for the country to set it as a precondition for the reunion of separated families.

Friday’s meeting is planned to be held at the North’s eastern slopes of Kumkangsan. The South Korean delegation for the Red Cross talks plans to cross the border via an eastern land route early Friday.