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[Editorial] N. Korea Must Free Fishermen

Posted August. 17, 2009 07:27,   


Hyundai Asan Corp. worker Yu Seong-jin was freed yesterday after spending 137 days in detention in North Korea. His release is apparently the North’s overture to the South after Pyongyang sent a reconciliatory gesture to the U.S. by releasing two American reporters. The North had repeatedly urged “unity among all Koreans,” so it would have been difficult to keep Yu detained even after freeing the two journalists in the wake of former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang.

Despite Yu’s release, a slew of humanitarian issues remain between South and North Korea. Four South Korean fishermen from the vessel 800 Yeonan remained prisoners in the North. The boat strayed into North Korean waters due to a mechanical failure July 30. Ironically, the South repatriated a North Korean fishing boat that accidentally crossed the inter-Korean border in the Yellow Sea the same day the 800 Yeonan entered the North. Pyongyang must immediately release the four fishermen and stop taking hostages.

Thirteen months have passed since the North’s killing of South Korean tourist Park Wang-ja, who was shot to death July 11 last year by a North Korean soldier at Mount Kumgang. Pyongyang, however, has yet to apologize for her shooting, let alone promise to prevent a recurrence. Tours to the scenic mountain should not resume before the killing is resolved. The North is mistaken if it believes her death will also be forgotten the way Yu’s detention was resolved.

Seoul should not interpret Yu’s release as signaling a major change in inter-Korean relations. Resolution of humanitarian issues is one thing, but the North Korea’s nuclear dismantlement is quite another. Unless Pyongyang fundamentally changes its behavior toward nuclear weapons, no breakthrough in inter-Korean relations is possible.

For more than 10 years, the pattern of North Korean aggression, U.N. sanctions against the North, the dispatch of a special envoy, and compensation followed by dialogue has repeated itself. U.S. President Barack Obama, however, has made it clear that Washington will break the pattern of compensating the North for its provocations. The U.S. says the release of the two journalists is a separate matter from the nuclear issue. It also added Tuesday Kwangson Banking Corp. to the list of North Korean entities subject to financial sanctions. The North is apparently taking reconciliatory moves toward the South and the U.S. to avoid international isolation resulting from U.N. economic sanctions resulting from its second nuclear explosion and missile tests. Pyongyang must face the reality of no breakthrough in ties with Seoul or Washington unless it gives up nuclear weapons.

Seoul must maintain a cool-minded and principle-based stance toward Pyongyang to prevent the North from misjudging that the South and the U.S. will return to the pattern of the past. It is thus premature to say that if Pyongyang releases detainees and talks of returning to the six-party talks, the South can resume sending aid to the North.