The North’s new tack: playing the POW card

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The North’s new tack: playing the POW card

At last Sunday’s reunion of families separated by the Korean War, four men who attended from the North were discovered to be former South Korean soldiers listed as Missing in Action. After 60 years, they were found to be alive and well - and allowed by Pyongyang to attend the reunions.

Their appearance has revived a tug of war between Seoul and Pyongyang over MIAs and prisoners of war stranded above the military demarcation line, along with South Koreans abducted by the North.

The South Korean government believes there are roughly 500 POWs still alive who were forced to stay in North Korea after the war, and about 400 civilians abducted by North Korea during and after the Korean War. Pyongyang insists that there are no POWs, and that every South Korean living in the North does so voluntarily. (The 79 South Koreans who have escaped since 1994 tell a very different story.)

Seoul has continuously tried to confirm the status of those who are missing - and one route is to ask for men on the POW list to be allowed to attend reunions.

But since the second family reunions in 2000, North Korea has refused to confirm the status of 193 out of 262 POWs and missing persons.

Last month, the South Korean Red Cross handed over a list of 200 possible reunion candidates, which included 26 men on Seoul’s list of POWs and kidnapped South Koreans. North Korea informed the South that the status of 25 of the 26 could not be confirmed, according to the Ministry of Unification yesterday. North Korea said the final man, Seo Pil-hwan, was dead.

With the appearance of the four former South Korean soldiers on Sunday, analysts believe North Korea is getting ready to bargain further on the POW issue. North Korea described the four former soldiers as people who volunteered to reside in the North after the war. Since the South listed them as MIA, their names had not been included on any POW or kidnapped list.

According to North Korea analysts, North Korea may by trying to get Seoul’s attention by showing the four MIAs, after which it will continue to deflect any questions about POWs - until it needs a bargaining chip in the future. Analysts say it might even go so far to cooperate in confirming POWs and kidnapped persons if some compensation for their release is offered.

“The North Korean government is being deliberately negligent in its confirmations for the family reunions,” said a Unification Ministry official, “because they may be saving the POW card for later, for something in return.”

North and South Korea have agreed to another round of Red Cross talks to discuss humanitarian issues on Nov. 25, and one of the items on the agenda relates to POWs.

Meanwhile, a group of 94 South Koreans made their way to the Mount Kumgang resort to meet with 207 of their North Korean relatives yesterday. The reunions end on Friday.

By Christine Kim []
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