[EDITORIALS]Seoul should protect its ownAfter a former North Korean spy died recently, the government sent his body back to the North to his family. The measure seems to be in line with Unification Minister Chung Dong-young’s remarks made in September that Seoul was willing to consider the repatriation of former North Korean spies on humanitarian grounds. Following the repatriation in 1994 of Lee In-mo, a former North Korean spy, and the 2000 repatriation of 63 former spies, a heated debate took place in our society. One side argued that in order to improve inter-Korean relations the South has to make the first step while others argued that any repatriation of North Koreans should be linked to the fate of South Korean prisoners of war and abductees still kept in the North.
In principle, the repatriation of North Korean long-term prisoners should be allowed. There is no real justification and little benefit in stopping someone who has served more than 30 years in prison here and still wants to return to the North. Our government has been preaching the protection of human rights. Thus, even if the North does not reciprocate we cannot act in the same way.
The problem is the insincere attitude shown by past governments and the current government when it comes to the repatriation issue. The Defense Ministry said during its last inspection by the National Assembly that there are 546 South Korean prisoners of war still in the North. An estimated 450 South Korean abductees are also said to be there. In 1997, Yang Sun-yong, a prisoner of war who escaped from the North, said South Korean prisoners blamed Seoul for its inactivity whenever they talked about going back home. For how long will the government turn a deaf ear to these desperate cries for help? While serving their country is the basic duty of a citizen, tracing the fate of its own soldiers and repatriating them is the responsibility of a nation.
The Unification Ministry is expected to announce a repatriation plan this week. This time we should not repeat the naive mistake of hoping the North will take similar measures in response. The government has this year alone provided 1 trillion won worth ($959 million) of aid to the North. If the government fails to bring back a single South Korean soldier, how can it claim it is protecting the lives of its people? The humanitarian reasons that Minister Chung has mentioned should be applied to our own prisoners of war and abductees.