4 South Koreans detained by North

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4 South Koreans detained by North

North Korea yesterday said it had “recently detained” four South Koreans for illegally entering the country and that they had been placed under investigation.

A short dispatch by the state-run Korean Central News Agency didn’t identify the four, or provide details on when or how they entered the country. The Unification Ministry in Seoul was still trying to verify the report. Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said he would rely on both official and civilian channels to confirm the incident.

The announcement comes as the two Koreas try to engage in dialogue to address pending inter-Korean issues.

On Monday, the North proposed holding a bilateral military discussion on March 2 about communication, cross-border trips and customs clearance for South Koreans at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The South had earlier suggested they meet on Feb. 23 and has yet to accept the new proposal. On Feb. 8, the two Koreas held largely fruitless talks on resuming suspended tourism to Mount Kumgang and Kaesong. They have not returned to the table on the issue since then and the South has not responded to the North’s suggestion that the Kumgang tours resume on April 1.

So far this year, the North has been more anxious to hold talks with the South. But Seoul has been lukewarm at best, taking its time to make counteroffers after the North proposed dates for meetings.

The last South Korean to be detained in the North was Yu Song-jin. The 44-year-old engineer at the Kaesong Industrial Complex was arrested by North Korean authorities last March for allegedly criticizing the North’s political system and attempting to lure a female North Korean worker to defect to the South. Yu was freed in August. Last Christmas, a Korean-American missionary named Robert Park walked across the Tumen River along the China-North Korea border. Park carried a message urging the North government to improve human rights and free political prisoners. Park was released earlier this month. The North is currently detaining another American citizen but no other details have been made available.

Even as diplomatic efforts continue to bring North Korea back to the six-party table, Pyongyang has not stopped issuing military threats to South Korea. On Thursday, the North threatened to take military action if the South and the United States engage in their annual joint military drill in early March. The North’s threat has been an annual occasion, too, and the country argues this exercise - which mobilizes thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops - is designed to prepare them for an invasion of the North.

Earlier in February, North Korea also threatened a military attack for South Korea’s “anti-republic attempts to topple” the North regime.

By Yoo Jee-ho [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]
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