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S. Korea refuses N.K. demand to see 4 wanting to defect

Pyongyang proposes Red Cross talks over repatriation

South Korea on Monday rejected North Korea’s demand to meet with the four boat passengers wishing to defect, escalating tensions as the communist state appears determined to have all 31 on board repatriated.

In a message to the South, the North Korean Red Cross proposed that working-level officials meet Wednesday at their border village to determine the fate of the 31 North Koreans aboard the boat that accidentally strayed here last month, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.

The North Korean boat carrying 11 men and 20 women drifted across the inter-Korean sea border in thick fog on Feb. 5. Of the passengers, 27 expressed a desire to return home while four, including the ship’s captain, asked to stay.

In an apparent bid to change the mind of the four, Pyongyang asked Seoul to bring them to the talks Wednesday, adding it will arrange a meeting with their family members, according to the ministry which handles affairs with North Korea.

The South Korean Red Cross replied Pyongyang should first take the 27 people who will be repatriated via the inter-Korean truce village Panmunjeom later in the day. It also said issues over the remaining four can be discussed in the Wednesday talks, the ministry added.

While Seoul is willing to “participate in verifying that the four North Koreans made the decision upon their free will,” it will not be bringing them to the proposed talks, a ministry official told reporters on the condition of customary anonymity.

While Seoul persists in keeping the four here under international law, Pyongyang accuses its wealthier rival of influencing their decision and has been refusing to accept any fewer than all 31 of its nationals.

North Korea already refused to accept the 27 last week, fueling tensions which had already been running high for months since it attacked a South Korean island, killing four people in November.

In an earlier briefing Monday, a spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry said “no changes” had been made in the government’s position to keep the four North Koreans here.

“Decision made upon the free will of a person must be respected on a humanitarian basis,” said Chun Hae-sung.

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

The latest feud between the two Koreas takes place weeks after their defense talks broke down over Pyongyang’s refusal to admit to its two deadly attacks against Seoul last year.

While maintaining tough rhetoric on the return of its nationals, North Korea called for unconditional inter-Korean talks with Seoul over the weekend, indicating urgency to thaw ties in the face of escalating food shortages.

By Shin Hae-in (