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2008/12/11 13:58 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 33 (December 11, 2008)


South Korea Pulls Nationals out of North Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Under the so-called Dec. 1 measures by North Korea, South Korea completed the withdrawal of hundreds of its nationals from two main inter-Korean cooperative sites in the North on Dec. 4 after the socialist country ordered them out.

   The North earlier demanded that, starting Dec. 1, the number of South Koreans working at the joint industrial and tourism zones in Kaesong and Mt. Kumgang be halved to 880 and 100, respectively. The communist nation said the cutback is part of its initial retaliatory measures on Seoul's hard-line policy toward Pyongyang.

   The last group of about 50 staffers, including 23 Chinese, left the two North Korean areas in the afternoon, according to Kim Ho-nyoun, spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry dealing with North Korea.

   They originally planned to cross the heavily armed border into the South a day earlier but their departure had been delayed due to procedural matters.

   North Korea fell short of taking any measure that directly affects the Kaesong industrial complex where 88 South Korean labor-intensive manufacturers operate with more than 36,000 North Koreans employed.

   Seoul officials and companies in Kaesong, however, worry the sharp reduction of South Korean officials and managers there and stricter restriction of traffic across the border would seriously cripple the companies' operations.

   Inter-Korean relations have worsened since conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in February and took a firmer stance on North Korea, which refuses to give up its nuclear weapons program. There have been no reconciliation talks between the two Koreas for the past 10 months while emotional tension has risen.

   North Korea is especially angry at Seoul's reluctance to carry out a spate of cross-border economic projects that were agreed on between leaders of the two sides in 2000 and 2007. Those projects would require massive South Korean investment in the impoverished state.


Seoul Mulls Compensation to N. Korea for Return of POWs

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea is considering "incentives" that include financial compensation to North Korea for the return of South Korean soldiers held prisoner since the end of the Korean War, an official at the defense ministry said Dec. 5.

   At least 560 former South Korean soldiers are still believed to be held in the communist North since they were taken prisoner during the three-year Korean War, the official said, asking not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

   Pyongyang strongly denies holding any South Korean prisoners of war (POW), claiming South Korean soldiers now in the North defected voluntarily.

   "In July 1953, when the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, the United Nations Command estimated some 82,000 South Korean soldiers were taken prisoner. Only some 8,300 of them were repatriated at that time as a result of the armistice," the official told reporters.

   Seoul had in the past offered to provide what the official called "significant incentives," mostly in the form of economic or humanitarian assistance, if Pyongyang agreed to resolve the issue. Tens of thousands of South Koreans have remained separated from their loved ones in the North for over five decades.

   "The proposal is not yet finalized, but the government is considering various ways, such as providing incentives to the North, to win their return," the official said, noting such incentives could include monetary compensation. He refused to comment on how much money could be offered in exchange for the return of each South Korean POW.

   Families of South Korean POWs and citizens kidnapped to the communist North welcomed the move, though they noted it comes much too late.

   "We cannot sit around forever, just trying to come up with ways to have them returned to the country. These people are already very old and most of them will pass away within the next 10 years," said Lee Mi-il, head of the Korean War Abductees Family Association.

   Many South Koreans oppose giving any cash to the communist North out of fear that the money could aid the impoverished nation's development of weapons of mass destruction or nuclear weapons.

   Lee dismissed the fears not only as groundless, but also as absurd.

   "We have been giving money to North Korea in exchange for various tourism projects to Kaesong and Mt. Kumgang. This was hard currency paid not in exchange for people, but for tours that people really could have chosen not to take," she said in a telephone interview with Yonhap News Agency.

   A total of 76 South Korean POWs, including six this year, have returned to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 war, but only after they had first defected from the communist North, according to the defense ministry.


Hyundai Asan Calls for Better Ties with N. Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Hyundai Asan Corp., a South Korean company operating businesses in North Korea, asked its government Dec. 4 to take a "bold step" to improve relations with the North, amid worsening inter-Korean ties that have seen the company suspend tour programs to the communist neighbor.

   In a letter signed by hundreds of employees at Hyundai Asan, the company also called for the South Korean government to provide financial support to keep its businesses afloat.

   Major inter-Korean economic projects, run by Hyundai Asan on behalf of the South Korean government, are facing an uncertain future after North Korea took a series of retaliatory steps against the South's hard-line policy toward it.

   Effective Dec. 1, North Korea started restricting cross-border traffic with the South after halting two reconciliation projects, tours to the North's ancient border city of Kaesong and a regular cargo train service between the heavily armed border of the two Koreas.

   Tours to Mt. Kumgang on the North Korean east coast, the first North destination opened to tourists in 1998, have also been halted since July when a South Korean tourist was fatally shot dead by a North Korean soldier.

   The South Korean government "needs to take a bold and epochal step to swiftly normalize relations with North Korea," Hyundai Asan said in a statement.

   Inter-Korean relations have soured since conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in South Korean in February, with a pledge to get tough on Pyongyang. Lee has said South Korea would help North Korea only when the communist regime gives up its nuclear ambitions.

   In response, North Korea has accused the government of President Lee of failing to live up to two summit agreements reached by his two liberal predecessors that call for massive investment in the North.


Seoul Indicates No Immediate Plan to Send Food Aid to N. Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea indicated Dec. 9 it has no immediate plan to send food aid to North Korea after U.N. agencies released a report citing increased food production in the country this year.

   The joint report by the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agricultural Organization estimated the North's total food production would be 3.3 million tons milled -- 4.21 million tons unmilled -- for 2008-2009, leaving the country with a food deficit of 836,000 tons over the coming months.

   Kim Ho-nyoun, spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry, told reporters that the report represented a modest increase in production from last year's 3 million tons milled. He noted many South Korean experts and relief group activists have anticipated a bigger harvest for this year.

   North Korea has relied on foreign handouts to help feed its 23 million people since the late 1990s, when about 2 million people are believed to have starved to death from a severe famine that struck the country.

  In July, the WFP warned the communist nation could face one of its worst food shortages in years due to flooding and fertilizer shortages.

   North Korea has yet to request the annual shipment of 400,000 tons of rice and 300,000 tons of fertilizer it normally receives from South Korea amid chilled cross-border relations.

   Seoul has been waiting for the release of the field survey report before making a decision on whether to provide humanitarian aid to the impoverished country.

   It has so far maintained it would send food aid only when the North requests it or when the country's chronic food shortages become substantially worse.

   "We are now in neither of the two situations," Kim said when asked if current circumstances called for emergency aid. "As for the question of sending food aid to North Korea, we're going to comprehensively consider all factors," he said, adding public opinion is one such factor.

   North Korea has taken a series of hostile steps to protest conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's tough stance toward Pyongyang.

   The North suspended cross-border rail services and sightseeing tours to the ancient North Korean city of Kaesong early this month. It also tightened controls over cross-border traffic.

   Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong told lawmakers last week that the government cannot but be prudent in providing aid to North Korea when Pyongyang has taken such measures to cut ties with Seoul.