[Viewpoint] Jasmine revolution and repatriation

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[Viewpoint] Jasmine revolution and repatriation

Another obstacle - the repatriation of the 27 North Koreans - has been added to the already deadlocked inter-Korean relationship. Among the 31 North Koreans who crossed into South Korean waters on a fishing boat, four chose to defect, and Pyongyang strongly protested that the four have been excluded from the repatriation.

North Korea condemned Seoul for committing an antihumanitarian action by not sending back all of them, and it refused the repatriation of the 27 others. It is not the first time that North Korean residents have accidentally drifted into the South. It is puzzling why Pyongyang wants to “use all possible measures” to get the four back, threatening “serious results in the inter-Korean relationship.”

There are a few reasons behind North Korea’s special concern over the four North Koreans who wish to defect to the South. First of all, Pyongyang has become nervous over the Middle East revolts and is responding in an overly sensitive manner as a consequence. The North Korean authorities are doing everything they can to intercept overseas news spreading in the country, controlling mobile phones in the border region and prohibiting mobile phone rentals to foreigners.

The North Korean military has threatened to open fire directly on Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, Gyeonggi, if propaganda leaflets continue to be sent from there. Pyongyang seems to be worried that a large-scale defection may occur if the four defectors are allowed to stay in the South. The response illustrates how nervous Pyongyang is over potential agitation among its residents.

Also, Pyongyang intends to hold Seoul accountable for the deadlock in the inter-Korean relationship. The U.S.-China summit in January called for improvement in inter-Korean relations and a sincere inter-Korean dialogue. North Korea wants to stress that it has held up its end of the bargain. If it cannot expect much from the South, it has to rely on China, so Pyongyang wants to justify expanded assistance from China regardless of improvements in the inter-Korean relationship. In fact, trade between North Korea and China has more than doubled since October compared to the year before.

It’s noteworthy that Pyongyang’s rejection is related to the latest development in inter-Korean relations - dialogue, or lack thereof. After ups and downs, working-level military talks resumed early last month, only to break down over the South’s demand for an apology for the Yeonpyeong and Cheonan attacks. The North insisted that everything would be settled once both sides sit at the table, but it never had any intention of making an apology.

However, without inter-Korean talks, Pyongyang cannot have a dialogue with the United States or a six-party meeting. So it has no choice but to resume the inter-Korean dialogue. Therefore, Pyongyang is protesting over the repatriation incident in order to lower the preconditions Seoul has set for the meeting. In fact, Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s official mouthpiece, demanded “unconditional dialogue” to prove Seoul’s sincerity not with words but with action on the same day it warned about the “consequences in the inter-Korean relationship.”

In the aftermath of the latest North Korean defection, Seoul needs to review its North Korean policy. Talks are certainly needed to relieve tension, but preventing North Korean provocation should be based on solid deterrence through the South Korea-U.S. alliance. We need to make sure that Pyongyang does not misunderstand Washington’s willingness to consider food aid and Seoul’s readiness to talk by exaggerating the repatriation issue unnecessarily.

If Seoul seeks dialogue, we need to re-examine the policy and make all necessary preparations. The South Korean authorities must not give Pyongyang a reason to cause trouble. The objectives of talks should be clearly defined, and the strategy needs to be adjusted accordingly. More importantly, a “control tower” in charge of North Korean policies and close cooperation between different government agencies needs to be established so that the government can respond consistently to any situation.

It would not be difficult to resume inter-Korean talks. However, if we consider the outcome, we cannot be more prudent. An expressway may be a fast way to reach a destination, but once you get on it, you can’t change direction until the next exit. Also, you need to check for accidents or traffic jams. If you are not sure, you may want to consider remaining on the road you are now on for a while.

*The writer is the director of the North Korean Research Center at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

By Choi Jin-wook
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