Pyongyang sends South Korean man back to Seoul

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Pyongyang sends South Korean man back to Seoul

North Korea on Tuesday repatriated a 34-year-old South Korean man who illegally entered the country on July 22, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.

The ministry, which handles relations with the North, said in a statement that the man, only identified by his surname Seo, returned to the South at 11 a.m. on Tuesday through the border village of Panmunjom.

Why he crossed into North Korea, and from where, was not explained. The ministry said North Korea told the South on Monday morning about its plans to send him back home, to which the South responded in the afternoon that it was willing to receive him.

The ministry said it thought “positively” about the regime’s “humanitarian” gesture. Local authorities will question Seo about his stay in the North, an official said.

Seo is separate from six South Korean nationals that Seoul believes Pyongyang is detaining after they entered the country on their own will, including three North Korean defectors. North Korean defectors are given South Korean citizenship once they settle in the South and still considered South Korean citizens by the government even if they re-enter the North.

Since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, 516 South Koreans are believed to have been kidnapped by the North, but the Unification Ministry does not count them as detainees and has not explicitly said it is working toward their release.

The issue of detainees was not explicitly mentioned in the declaration signed between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their first summit in April, but officials in Seoul are hopeful that an agreement on humanitarian issues could lay the groundwork. In the declaration, both Koreas agreed to “swiftly resolve the humanitarian issues that resulted from the division of the nation.”

In early May, Yoon Young-chan, Moon’s senior secretary for public affairs, belatedly informed local reporters that the Blue House chief had asked Kim for the speedy release of the six detainees on April 27. Yoon, however, did not mention Kim’s response.

The most specific reaction from the North came on June 1, when Cho Myoung-gyon, Seoul’s unification minister, said in a briefing after a high-level meeting with Pyongyang officials that the North Korean delegation told him a “relevant agency” was “reviewing” the South Korean detainee issue.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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