North Korean officials are free to come and meet four nationals to verify whether they really wish to defect to the South, a senior official here said Wednesday, as Seoul repeated its demand for the prompt repatriation of the remaining 27 North Koreans.
In a message to the North on Wednesday, South Korea made its fourth request for the communist state to immediately take back the 27, who were among the 31 North Koreans who accidently strayed here on a small fishing boat on Feb. 5.
While it has no plans to repatriate the four people who have expressed a desire to stay, the Seoul government is willing to cooperate with the North in verifying whether they made the decision of their own free will as soon as the 27 are returned, the Unification Ministry here said.
North Korea has been snubbing South Korea’s attempt to send back people through the truce village of Panmunjeom since earlier this month, refusing to take any fewer than all 31 of its nationals.
A group of North Koreans are shown stopping by Imjingak on their way to the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjeom for repatriation to the North last week. (Yonhap News)
South Korea has been firm on keeping the four would-be defectors here, citing international practice and humanitarian reasons. The North, which sternly punishes people attempting to flee from the impoverished state, accuses Seoul of influencing the decision of the two women and two men who were investigated for nearly a month.
Earlier this week Seoul rejected a proposal by Pyongyang to arrange family gatherings for the four in their border town.
“Family meetings are out of question as these people could be blackmailed and forced to change their minds,” a senior aide to the president told reporters.
“If they cannot trust us, the North could send down officials here instead to verify the wishes of the four people,” he said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
The Unification Ministry here, which handles affairs with Pyongyang, has said it is willing to discuss “an impartial and objective method” of examining the wishes of the four North Koreans through a Red Cross dialogue.
In an angry reply to Seoul’s offer Tuesday, the North Korean Red Cross accused the South of “luring innocent people to its land in a sinister plot.”
“The fact that the South is refusing to let us meet the four people face to face is proof of deception,” it said in a fax message late Tuesday. “If South Korea continues to reject our demand, we will take this as a proof of kidnapping and respond sternly.”
The four North Koreans have become the latest source of tension between the two Koreas, who are technically still at war and exchanged fire as recently as November.
During the defense talks with Pyongyang last month, Seoul demanded the communist state’s apology for conducting two deadly attacks last year.
While apparently wanting to resume dialogue with its rival South as well as other regional powers to secure aid of food and fuel, North Korea continues to deny responsibility for two attacks last year that killed dozens of South Koreans.
By Shin Hae-in (firstname.lastname@example.org