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Four North Koreans’ decision to live in South may add chill to bilateral relations

North Korea did not respond on Friday to the proposal to send back 27 of the 31 North Koreans whose fishing boat strayed across the western inter-Korean sea border on Feb. 5.

Despite Pyongyang’s repeated calls to send all of its nationals back, Seoul has decided to return only 27. The South says that it cannot repatriate the four who wish to stay here, based on “international humanitarian principles.”

The South, which notified the North of the repatriation plan Thursday, planned to send them at 11:00 a.m. through the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjeom. The communist state had not responded as of press time.

The South expected the North to express its position on the repatriation later in the day.

The Unification Ministry said investigators believe that the clam-fishing boat carrying 11 men and 20 women mistakenly crossed the border as fog hampered visibility.

Four of them expressed their wish to stay here just before the investigation team wrapped up their inquiry into them Wednesday. Among the four are the 38-year-old captain, a nurse and a statistical worker, officials said.

Given the hardships their families would go through, their decision to stay here is quite a surprise. According to reports, the four decided to remain in the South as they saw the developed South Korean society and had been warmly treated by officials here.

Some others presumed that the captain might have opted to defect to the South for fear of the possible punishment on his return.

The Seoul government decided to respect their decision to stay here “with a humanitarian concern and in accordance with international principles,” officials said.

“The humanitarian principle of the international community keeps us from sending back defectors or asylum seekers against their will,” a senior Cheong Wa Dae official, refusing to be named. “When China sent North Korean defectors back, we protested it. How can we repatriate them after they expressed a wish for defection here?”

The North’s Red Cross repeated late Thursday that all of its nationals, who are “unfairly held by the South,” should be sent immediately by sea.

“The issue over the return of our nationals is a human-rights and humanitarian issue. At the same time, it is a grave issue related to the inter-Korean relationship,” it said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

With an apparent reference to the reports here that the South Korean coxed North Koreans into defection, it also said, “The South is adhering to a vile act to coerce them into defection through deceptive means including taking them here and there (in Seoul).”

Seoul officials denied the reports that South Korea gave the North Koreans a tour of the capital city and key industrial sites to show them how different the South is from the impoverished North.

“(The reports over our coercion) are absolutely untrue. There is no reason whatsoever why we try to coerce into defection the civilians who came while fishing,” a government official said on condition of anonymity.

Some observers expressed concerns that the partial return could further aggravate inter-Korean ties particularly at a time when peninsular tensions remain high as the South and the U.S. are conducting their annual military exercises.

However, experts believe that even though the North keeps hardening its rhetoric against its southern neighbor, it may not want to see the bilateral ties seriously deteriorating.

“The North may express deep displeasure verbally on the surface. But I don’t believe the North wants to make the bilateral relationship seriously worsen as it needs to secure food assistance and is seeking to improve ties with the South,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

Kim also noted that such a strong response to the decision not to repatriate all of them also appears intended to tighten discipline among its people when North Koreans may feel disgruntled by persistent food shortages and when popular aspirations for genuine democracy are spreading across the Middle East and North Africa.

In September 2009, a North Korean boat carrying two men crossed the maritime border in the West Sea. One of them decided to remain in the South. In September 2010, four North Koreans drifted into the East Sea. Only one of them was sent back according to his wishes.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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