31 North Koreans to be returned in a month

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31 North Koreans to be returned in a month

A group of 31 North Koreans, who had been discovered by the South Korean military drifting near Yeonpyeong Island on Feb. 5, are expected to be returned to the North sometime this week.

But questions have arisen as to why the group was kept in the South for nearly a month. In previous cases, the South Korean government returned in a matter of days North Koreans who enter South Korean territory by mistake and do not wish to stay.

Experts on North Korea as well as South Korean government officials have said during the past few weeks that the group’s stay was extended to give the North Korean regime a taste of its own medicine. In the past, North Korea has kept South Koreans who have found themselves across the border by accident for weeks and even months, despite continued requests from Seoul for their return.

“There was once a grueling case when a similar situation occurred and the people were returned in a short amount of time - there were suspicions that they had been returned regardless of their willingness to stay,” said one South Korean source related to the matter.

The 20 women and 11 men have been answering questions from South Korean officials during their stay in a secure facility and have been spending their time watching television programs and films about South Korea. The source said the group has also been exposed to news on the protests in Egypt and Libya.

Some have speculated that the group may have been sent deliberately from the North for propaganda’s sake because the group is large and has stayed in Korea for an unusually long time.

“Hungry North Korean citizens have been protesting since earlier this year, and if all 31 go back to North Korea without defecting, it would be something that could be used for a long time to promote the country,” said Representative Song Young-sun, a conservative South Korean lawmaker.

One North Korean defector, a former military officer, told the JoongAng Ilbo that winter is usually when North Korea heightens its guard at the border and “that big a group could not have come down if the North Korean military did not approve of it.”

He added: “At this time, when more North Koreans defect and word is getting out that North Korea is shaking, if 31 go back, it would be great for Kim Jong-il.”

By Christine Kim, Lee Young-jong [christine.kim@joongang.co.kr]

Related Korean Article[중앙일보]

지난 5일 서해 연평도 인근 북방한계선(NLL)을 통해 남하한 북한 주민 31명(남자 11명, 여자 20명)이 이르면 이번 주 중 전원 북한으로 송환될 예정이다. 이와 관련, 이들이 남하가 “북한의 선전용 자작극일 수 있다”는 의혹이 제기되고 있다.

국회 국방위원회 소속 미래희망연대 송영선 의원은 27일 본지와의 통화에서 “올해 초부터 배고픈 북한 주민들이 각종 폭동을 일으키고 있는데, 31명 중 한 명도 귀순하지 않고 돌아가면 북한으로선 국가 선전에 대대적으로 쓸 수 있는 소재”라고 말했다.

 북한 군 장교 출신으로 최근 탈북한 인사는 기자와 만나 “이들이 내려온 5일은 북한에선 (경비가 강화되는) ‘특별경비기간’이고, 북한 해상을 다니려면 통행증도 필요하다”며 “북한군이 봐주지 않는 이상 그렇게 많은 사람이 내려올 수가 없다”고 주장했다. 그는 “탈북자가 늘어나고 북한이 흔들린다는 말이 많은 시기에 31명이 전향하지 않고 돌아가면 김정일한테는 얼마나 좋은 일이겠느냐”며 “북한은 연평도·천안함 사건 이후 무력 도발이 어려워져 이런 선전전을 통해서라도 내부 단속을 강화하고 싶을 것”이라고 했다.

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