Oct. 25 (Bloomberg) -- North Korea will repatriate six South Koreans across the two countries’ heavily armed border today as questions surround the detainees’ identities and reason for their capture and release.
The group may include four unidentified South Koreans that North Korea said in 2010 had been detained for illegal entry, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui Do said today at a briefing without giving more details. Minister Ryoo Kihl Jae wasn’t able confirm whether detained missionaries were among the group who will be returned through the border village of Panmunjom at 4:30 p.m.
More than 3,800 South Koreans have been kidnapped by North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953 that cemented the division of the two countries, according to the Unification Ministry. The North has returned most of the those, with 517 people still unaccounted for as of 2012. Most of those kidnapped were fishermen. In September, a South Korean managed to escape the North 41 years after his fishing boat was seized.
“North Korea appears to be discarding something that is no longer useful as a bargaining chip,” Ahn Chan Il, a political scientist who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies, said by phone. “I suspect North Korea may be starting another psychological game with South Korea.”
The repatriation adds another twist to relations that began to improve after North and South Korea agreed in August to reopen a jointly run industrial park. Dialogue hit a snag last month when the North canceled planned reunions of families separated by the Korean War that ended 60 years ago in a truce.
The North’s Red Cross notified the South yesterday of the plan to repatriate the detainees, who are all men ranging from age 27 to 67, the ministry said in e-mailed statements.
The ministry called it “fortunate” that the North was taking the humanitarian step of repatriating the South Koreans.
“This appears to be a humanitarian gesture with a message that South Korea should also make goodwill gestures in other issues” such as suspended cross-border tours, Kim Soo Am, a North Korea researcher at the government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said yesterday by phone. “North Korea understands it can’t always rely on tension.”
North Korea has also detained U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae since November last year. Bae, a tour operator and Christian missionary, remains imprisoned after being accused of “hostile acts” against the Kim Jong Un regime. Kim Soo Am said this could bode well for Bae’s release.
“North Korea has been trying to promote itself as humanitarian recently,” Kim said, citing North Korea’s decision earlier this month to allow Bae’s mother to visit.
North Korea yesterday also approved a visit by a group of South Korean lawmakers to the Gaeseong industrial park on Oct. 30, opposition legislator Kim Sung Gon said by phone.
Citizens of the Koreas are not allowed to travel to the other side without approval, as the countries technically remain in a state of war after the 1950-53 conflict ended without a peace agreement.
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