Twenty-seven of the 31 North Koreans who had drifted into South Korean waters in the West Sea in a boat early last month have returned to the North. Four chose to live in the South, according to the authorities. Last week, six North Korean refugees who had stayed in China sailed to South Korea in a hired boat along with three Korean-Chinese people.
We do not know what will happen to the 27 people who returned home. The 18 women and nine men are not all fishermen but included nearby residents who are said to have crammed into the 5-ton vessel to catch fish in the coastal waters to supplement the meager income from their work at factories.
If they are lucky, they will be given a heroes’ welcome for having allegedly defied Seoul’s temptation to remain in the South. But they would certainly undergo a process to cleanse them of the “contamination” from their 50-day stay in the South.
Pyongyang officials would probably conceal the fact that four of the 31-person group remained in the South. In an attempt to prevent the residents of coastal areas from seeking to defect to the South, North Korean authorities have told them that the South had decided to send back all North Koreans regardless of the circumstances of their reaching the southern waters, whether it was voluntary or due to bad weather.
During negotiations at Panmunjeom, North Koreans tried hard to get the return of all 31 people in custody in the South, bringing to the truce village the families of the four who would not go back to the North. They mentioned humanitarianism to support their demand but the Southern delegates turned it down, telling them the real humanitarianism is to respect the free will of individuals.
About 3,000 North Koreans arrive in the South each year via third countries or by the sea to escape hunger and repression. It is not a small number, but the South should be prepared to accept far more, considering what is taking place in the North.