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2009/04/09 10:59 KST


North Korea Must Immediately Release Detained Civilians

By Yu Ho-yeol (Professor of Korea University, Seoul, Korea)

The two American journalists arrested by North Korean soldiers on March 17 were gathering news on the issue of defectors at the Tumen River, which forms a border between North Korea and China. Immediately detained, they are being investigated in confinement. Announcing the intermediary result of the investigation, North Korea's news media on March 31 said that they would be prosecuted on charges of illegal entry and hostile acts. How they entered North Korea remains unknown, but it appears clear that they came to the attention of North Korean guards while they were monitoring the route defectors take to escape.

   The human rights and physical safety of these female reporters is reportedly being protected, as they are investigated by the National Security and Protection Department in Pyongyang, but they have not been allowed to meet with the consul of the Swedish Embassy in North Korea, which represents the U.S. in diplomatic situations there. According to the criminal law of North Korea, hostile acts constitute a felony with a punishment of 5 years imprisonment at least.

   It is expected that North Korea will actively try to settle the issue after its rocket launch, scheduled for the beginning of April and at the opening of the Highest People's Conference. Demanding early release of the U.S. reporters, the U.S. government is carefully and prudently approaching the issue, as all the facts remain to be revealed exactly.

   The U.S. State Department declared that it will continue diplomatic activities to resolve the issue, while holding the safety of the detained Americans as paramount. Announcing that the rocket launch and the detention of Americans are seperate issues, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, dismissed the possibility of hostage diplomacy in advance.

   North Korea on March 30 also announced that it was investigating a South Korean staff member working in the Kaesong Industrial Complex on suspicion of denouncing the North Korean political system and encouraging a female North Korean worker to defect. In accordance with the agreement on the access to Kaesong Industrial Complex and stay enforced in 2005, North Korea guarantee the safety and health of the staff of South Korea under investigation without allowing the right of interview or defense until five days elapse after occurrence of the case. Generally, while the law of North Korea is applied to the crime committed in special districts such as Kaesong Industrial Complex or Mt. Kumgang Tourism Zone, the case is settled by imposing a penalty or expulsion after agreement between South Korea and North Korea.

   However, the prospect of the situation appears obscure this time, as dialogue between South Korea and North Korea is totally suspended. Like the detained U.S. female reporters, the detained staff of South Korea may become a serious political issue. In the past, North Korea detained Americans of Korean origin or U.S. soldiers and settled the case politically through diplomatic channels some time later. U.S. statesman like Bill Richardson were dispatched as special envoys to actively settle the case. It seems plausible that the situation may follow a similar path this time.

   North Korea is likely to attempt a reversal of the tension by diluting international society's denunciation and sanction of North Korea after launching its rocket, with the settlement of the Americans' detention and a lightning declaration of the resumption of 6-parties talks. Then, North Korea may take the initiative in the negotiation with the U.S., fully propagating a peaceful image externally. However, such tactics and expectations of North Korea are not likely to work.

   The Chinese government must actively clarify the facts of the case occurring on the borderline between North Korea and China and show a responsible attitude in the course of solving the issue. Although the case is related to the issue of defectors from North Korea which may be troublesome to North Korea, it is unpardonable to arrest, detain and heavily punish to civilian reporters who were gathering news.

   In the same context, the act to detain civilian staff of South Korea who worked in Kaesong industrial complex, the symbol of reconciliation, exchange and cooperation between South Korea and North Korea, without allowing the right of interview and defense is in definite violation of agreement between South Korea and North Korea. As such, it is naturally subject to impeachment.

   North Korea must immediately suspend this behavior to maximize internal and external gain by forming tension in the Korean Peninsula and making use of the heightened crisis. If detaining civilians is escalated to a form of hostage diplomacy, North Korea may be hit by an unexpected counterattack, because the U.S. or international society designate North Korea as new terror state instead of seeking a political solution such as dispatching a special envoy.

   North Korea must beware of this possibility. If detention is extended, the intentions of North Korea will not be attained. On the contrary, the young American women reporters who gathered news on the issue of defectors on the borderline will get an exact and vivid scoop on the attributes and nature of the North Korean system, the origin of the issue. Further, the staff of South Korea which tried to improve the relation between South Korea and North Korea will also enable the whole nation to realize the main problem in exchange and cooperation between South Korea and North Korea. (Yonhap News)