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(Yonhap Feature) Political tensions dim fate of S. Korean prisoners in North

2017/08/09 09:27

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SEOUL, Aug. 9 (Yonhap) -- Kim Jung-wook, a South Korean Christian missionary devoted to helping North Koreans and evangelizing among them, moved in 2007 to Dandong, a Chinese city bordering North Korea.

For the following five years he served starving North Korean defectors and travelers crossing the Yalu River, a major northern trading route between China and North Korea.

In the autumn of 2013, Kim made a short trip back to South Korea to gather information for his missionary work and meet with his siblings. His older brother Kim Jung-sam had no idea that would be the last time he would see Jung-wook, who was detained in the North in October for allegedly spying for the South.

"My brother is not a spy," he said. "He is only a religious man, and was interested in missionary activities for North Koreans."

   North Korea announced in November it is holding a South Korean spy agent, and identified him later as Kim Jung-wook through Kim's TV interview carried by state-run North Korean TV channels in February the next year.

Early in 2014, North Korea again announced that Kim was sentenced to correctional labor for life for plotting to build an underground church in North Korea, a crime defined as a hostile act against the North Korean republic.

South Korea's National Intelligence Service repeatedly confirmed Kim was not their agent.

While Kim's detention comes to nearly four years this year, he has not been allowed to talk or write to his closest family members. He has been denied consular meetings. Concerns about his fate have deepened, especially since the recent death of American college student Otto Warmbier following his captivity in the reclusive country.

"I am afraid of his health ... I hope there could be at least some progress like allowing a meeting with him, although releasing him will be the best," the brother said.

This photo by Xinhua News Agency shows missionary Kim Jung-wook holding a news conference in North Korea on Feb. 27, 2014. (Yonhap) This photo by Xinhua News Agency shows missionary Kim Jung-wook holding a news conference in North Korea on Feb. 27, 2014. (Yonhap)

But the prospect looks bleak for Kim and five other South Korean national detainees in the North, including two other Christian missionaries convicted with similar crimes and sentenced to hard labor for life.

All the channels for communications between South and North Korea remain virtually shuttered since they closed their decade-old joint economic project of the Kaesong Industrial Complex early last year amid unusually heightened tensions.

Since then, North Korea has accelerated the advancement of its programs of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, conducting two nuclear tests last year and launching what the country claimed were intercontinental ballistic missiles last month, further deepening enmity on the Korean Peninsula.

In a bid to reduce tensions, the Moon Jae-in administration offered to have dialogue between the militaries and Red Cross bodies of South and North Korea, but the offer has not been answered despite repeated calls.

"The situation is discouraging with North Korea not returning South Korea's calls to hold talks while the North is seemingly willing to talk to the United States," said Lee Kyu-chang, research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

"Detaining Americans seems to be aiming at using them for opening talks with the U.S., but holding South Koreas seems to be different matters," Lee said, indicating that difference results in different treatment of American and South Korean detainees in North Korea.

During the near four-year detention of Kim, North Korea had two American officials -- then U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and sitting U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Joseph Yun -- come to the country to bring several American detainees home, including American missionary Kenneth Bae, who had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for anti-state crimes, as well as Warmbier.

During Yun's North Korean visit in June, he also reportedly met with three Americans detained in North Korea and ensured they were in good health.

On the other hand, no South Koreans convicted and given a sentence in North Korea have been sent back home so far, although three South Koreans have been sent back without conviction, according to the Ministry of Unification.

In the absence of any immediate possible release of its citizens, the South Korean government plans to rally international support for its efforts to bring them home.

"The issue is part of South Korea's main topics of interest and will be discussed in inter-Korean talks if they are held," Baik Tae-hyun, spokesman at the Ministry of Unification, said.

"But for now, talks are not happening. So we are capitalizing on many other channels like international forums or our meetings which China to help deliver our stance to the North through them because currently the inter-Korean relations are officially shuttered," the spokesman noted.

Kim's brother is also pinning hopes on the Moon administration's eagerness to talk to North Korea for the release of his brother.

"I am hopeful about the Moon government, as he has expressed his interest in human rights issues involving North Korea ... recently I have talked to the government quite frequently and was told that they are planning some actions on the matter although no specific information was given," he said.