A policy adriftAfter much hoopla, 27 of the 31 North Koreans who accidentally drifted across the maritime border between the two Koreas in a boat in the Yellow Sea early last month will be returned to their motherland, leaving four of their group behind in South Korea as they desired.
The South Korean Red Cross on March 3 said it would send back the 27, but North Korea demanded the return of the entire group. It is rare for North Koreans who drift into South Korean waters to ask to stay in South Korea because they usually fear retaliations against their family members back home.
Pyongyang posted propaganda interviews with the family of the four online and accused South Korea of brainwashing the four. The incident had the potential to worsen already tense inter-Korean relations.
The incident once again underscored the poor crisis management of our authorities. The boat drifted to the southern side during the Lunar New Year holiday and ahead of pivotal working-level military talks between North and South Korea following the deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff headquarters announced on Feb. 7 that a boat had drifted into southern waters two days earlier and said the entire group wanted to return home.
Military authorities maintained there would be no defections among the group throughout last month. Then suddenly earlier this month it said four wanted to defect, claiming that they changed their mind at the last minute.
No North Koreans should be sent back to their country against their will. But authorities gave an excuse for North Korea to escalate the issue by changing their line at the last minute.
They should not have commented on the intentions of the 31 North Koreans if they knew that interviews with them would take a long time.
The South Korean military came under fire for hastiness when they repatriated 22 North Koreans a day after they were discovered in southern waters in a rubber boat in February 2008.
Since 2000, North Korea has returned all South Korean fishermen it captured on the East Sea. It remains unclear whether it will keep doing so. It will be globally criticized if it retaliates by seizing South Korean citizens against their will.
But North Korea has always been unpredictable. Fishermen are advised to take extra caution when at sea.