Real Reconciliation Needs Wise Prisoner Repatriation

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Real Reconciliation Needs Wise Prisoner Repatriation

The South Korean government yesterday sent through the Panmunjom liaison office the list of 62 unswerving former long-term communist prisoners to be repatriated to the North on September 2. The repatriation of these unconverted ex-prisoners was one of the issues on which the two Koreas had reached a specific agreement during the inter-Korean Red Cross talks at the end of June, together with the exchange of separated families on August 15 and the establishment of a meeting place for them. Now that the exchange visits by the separated families have taken place in accordance with the agreement, repatriating the long-term ex-prisoners is naturally the next step to be taken. After the repatriation takes place, the two Koreas will get back to the Red Cross talks to reach a conclusion on setting up a meeting place for separated families.

We believe that the return of the unswerving long-term prisoners to the North is the right thing to happen, for humanitarian reasons and also because it is in accordance with the spirit of the inter-Korean reconciliation. It cannot be denied that the issue has a "political" aspect in that the ex-prisoners, unlike ordinary members of separated families, all served long prison sentences for their denial of, and attempts to bring down, the South Korean system. Some of them were imprisoned for over 40 years, and most of them are in their 70s and 80s, however, and it is time they were dealt with on humanitarian rather than political grounds. This also corresponds to the aims of the June 15 Joint Declaration. It appears that the same expedients will be used for the upcoming repatriation as were used in the case of Lee In-mo, who was returned to the North seven years ago with the unification minister's authorization to "visit" the North. This time, however, there doesn't seem to be any need to bother about such formalities.

Nevertheless, we must highlight several problems. First of all, we are concerned about the possibility of North Korea using the repatriated ex-prisoners for political purposes - as it did with Lee In-mo. As stipulated in the Joint Declaration, the unconverted long-term prisoner issue is a humanitarian one. If the former prisoners are used for domestic politics and propaganda, their long-awaited repatriation could end negatively affecting inter-Korean relations. It is desirable that the North shows the caution and good faith corresponding to the spirit of the repatriation.

Achieving a balance between the relocation of unconverted prisoners and other Koreans separated from their families because of the North Korean regime - such as the prisoners of war, South Koreans abducted by the North, and North Korean escapees - is another task we face. North Korea should no longer deny or ignore the plight of these people when former Communist prisoners are repatriated. Everyone saw the distressing sight of the families of those abducted by North Korea, who continued to hover around the North Korean delegation of separated families until yesterday to make an appeal for appropriate measures. In this regard, we urge the South Korean delegation to address this issue more forcefully at the Red Cross talks next month, and the North to respond to it. A solution will be surely devised, if the issue is perceived from the humanitarian point of view. One of the solutions could be including South Korean prisoners of war in the next delegation of separated families.

The governments of two Koreas have the responsibility to conclude the establishment of a meeting place for separated families as soon as the prisoners are returned to the North, as was agreed earlier. In view of the burning desire of displaced family members to be reunited with their families, which was starkly evident during the four-day reunion, the two authorities should also discuss diverse measures for contact in addition to the meeting place, such as exchanges of letters and other means of communication. The return of the North Korean prisoners should be made a turning point in the growth of inter-Korea respect and consideration, so that the atmosphere of reconciliation and cooperation on the Korean Peninsula can take another leap forward.

by Jeffrey Jones

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