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Unification Minister considers meeting with NK defectors amid controversy

South Korea’s unification minister is mulling a meeting with a North Korean defector group, a ministry official said Wednesday. The move is being seen as an effort to quell criticism over the minister’s decision to block a journalist who defected from the North from covering a high-level inter-Korean meeting held Monday. 

South Korea's Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon(Yonhap)
South Korea's Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon(Yonhap)

“A review (for the meeting) is under way among relevant offices,” ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told a regular press briefing. “Details on the schedule and other matters are yet to be determined. ... We will let you know if things are finalized.”

Earlier, a local media reported that Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon plans to hold a meeting with North Korean defectors to quell brewing criticism over his decision to exclude Kim Myeong-seong, a reporter of the conservative Chosun Ilbo daily newspaper from pool coverage for high-level talks at the border village of Panmunjom on Monday.

The Ministry of Unification explained the decision was made based on a number of factors, including limited space at Panmunjom, the nature of the high-level inter-Korean meeting and the fact that Kim is known to North Korea through his blogging history.

But Chosun Ilbo pointed out in an article covering the incident that he participated as a pool reporter in February for the visit to South Korea of the North’s leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong and the country’s nominal head of state Kim Yong-nam.

Monday’s decision was announced to the ministry’s press corps merely hours before the pool reporters were to be dispatched to Panmunjom. Such pool reporters are chosen in accordance with the press corps’ rules and essentially take turns.

Following the wrap-up of high-level talks Monday, Cho expressed regret to a group of reporters, but explained it was an “inevitable policy decision” to smoothly carry out the talks under the circumstance that the two Koreas “must reach an understanding” on the implementation of the Pyongyang agreement. He added that he may make a similar decision should he face a similar situation going forward.

Despite Cho’s remarks, controversy has been only snowballing with criticism from North Korean defectors, lawmakers and experts in South Korea over issues concerning freedom of the press and discrimination against defectors.

“(Cho’s decision) was a measure that stripped a North Korean defector in South Korea -- who is basically a South Korean citizen by right -- of his right to live as a human,” said Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector who is head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party on Tuesday called for the official dismissal of Cho, criticizing his “humiliating” stance towards North Korea and “inappropriate” behavior.

The press corps issued a statement saying the decision was “a grave infringement of freedom of press,” and requested Cho’s vow to never repeat such a decision.

On Monday, Cho and Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, held high-level talks on the South’s side of the truce village of Panmunjom to discuss implementation of the agreement reached between their leaders. They agreed to break ground for modernization of cross-border railways and roads by early December.