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2009/08/06 10:41 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 66 (August 6, 2009)


North Korea Seizes South Korean Fishing Boat

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea seized a stray South Korean fishing boat carrying four crewmembers and hauled it to a port on its east coast on July 30, despite repeated South Korean warnings. The 29-ton South Korean boat, 800 Yeonanho, "was tugged to the port of Jangjon at 9:30 a.m.," a defense ministry spokesperson in Seoul said in a briefing.

   South Korea sent a message calling for the immediate release of the boat, which had been floating in North Korean waters as early as 5:05 a.m., the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said press release.

   The spokesman said a crewmember on the boat reported a malfunction with the satellite navigation system via commercial link shortly before it was seized 11km into North Korean waters at 6:27 a.m.

   North Korea's military said July 31 that the seized South Korean fishermen will be dealt with according to the results of an ongoing investigation, a response Seoul officials consider "positive."

   The faxed message came through an inter-Korean military communications line a day after the squid-fishing boat was towed to the North's eastern
port. Pyongyang earlier confirmed the seizure through a maritime phone contact, but no written message had been received.

   "A pertinent organ is conducting a concrete investigation regarding the ship Yeonanho 800," the Unification Ministry quoted the North Korean message as saying. The message, sent by an unidentified military official in charge of the East Sea district, did not name the investigating organ or mention the fate of the crew, only saying their case "will be dealt with according to the investigation results."

   Unification Minister Hyun In-taek welcomed the military's message, but with caution. Its timing was considered prompt by North Korean standards. "Now that there was a prompt response about the situation, I'm looking at it in a positive way," Hyun said. "But I will keep an eye on the situation."

   The ministry said it sent a return message to the North, saying the crossing occurred "by mistake" and requesting the early release of the boat and the crew "on humanitarian grounds."

   The seizure comes as a South Korean worker remains detained in North Korea since March over allegations that he defamed its ruling system and encouraged defection at a joint factory complex just north of the inter-Korean border.

   Ties between the Koreas unraveled after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office early last year with a pledge to bolster pressure on Pyongyang to drop its nuclear weapons programs.

   North Korea retaliated by suspending reconciliation talks and threatening armed conflict along their border. Tensions heightened further after the communist state conducted its second nuclear test in May and test-fired ballistic missiles off the east coast.

   The seized South Korean boat did not respond to initial requests by South Korean naval vessels trying to identify it, JCS spokesman Park Sung-woo said.

   "The ship was out of the reach of our radars when it crossed the Northern Limit Line (NLL)," the de facto inter-Korean maritime border, he said. "The boat was also tiny and built with reinforced plastics, which made it hard to identify the vessel with radars."

   South Korean patrol boats moved closer to the NLL and warned North Korea twice to "reciprocate by releasing the fishing boat" after the seizure, he said. The South Korean navy said it sent back two stray North Korean fishing boats on June 30 and July 5, respectively.

   The July 30 seizure was the first such case among fishermen since President Lee Myung-bak took office last year. It also marks the third time since 2005 that a South Korean fishing boat has been seized by North Korean authorities. The two previous boats, which also strayed across the border, were released after five and 19 days, respectively, according to officials.

   The 800 Yeonanho departed from the port of Geojin on the eastern coast at 1:30 p.m. on July 29 and sailed past the NLL as far as 32km off the port of Jejin, officials said.

   Skippered by a man only identified by his last name, Park, the boat, which was operating in the East Sea and mainly fishes for squid, was scheduled to return home July 31.

   Previous similar cases were handled through Red Cross channels, which are currently unavailable as Pyongyang severed them in November to protest Seoul's hardline policy toward it.

   Fishing boats often stray across the border and are routinely released after a week or two of inquiry. But the latest case raised concern in Seoul as inter-Korean relations have hit their lowest level in a decade.


S. Korea Gives Nod for First Group Trip to N. Korea Since Nuke Test

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea gave the green light on July 31 to a request by aid workers to visit North Korea, the first such approval since the socialist state's nuclear test in May.

   With the approval, a group of seven workers from World Vision's South Korean branch began their eight-day trip to Pyongyang and provincial towns on Aug. 1, officials at Seoul's Unification Ministry said.

   "The decision was made based on the government's position that humanitarian assistance to North Korea should be continued," ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said in a briefing.

   Chun said, however, the current restriction on civic visits to North Korea is still effective and that the ministry will selectively approve other cases depending on the purpose of the visit and its urgency, as well as the state of inter-Korean relations.

   Seoul imposed a travel ban immediately after North Korea conducted its second nuclear test on May 25, citing political tension in the region. Only business-related trips involving a joint industrial complex in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and a tourism resort at Mt. Kumgang were exempt from the ban.

   World Vision said the trip is aimed at resuming assistance in potato farming in North Korea.

   The previous week, a Seoul-based aid group, the Korean Sharing Movement, was forced to cancel its planned visit to the North as it failed to receive an official invitation from Pyongyang.


N. Korea Eases Paperwork for South Koreans Traveling to Kaesong Park

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- In a small, attention-getting move, North Korea decided to make it easier for South Koreans to travel by car to a joint industrial park on its soil beginning this week, Seoul officials said Aug. 2.

   The North's move comes as the fate of the inter-Korean factory park remains uncertain, with the communist country pressing for steep wage and rent hikes. The North has even hinted at closing the five-year-old venture unless its demands are met.

   The move also comes amid heightened cross-border tensions following the North's missile and nuclear tests. The North is currently under stricter U.N. sanctions because of its second nuclear test, conducted May 25.

   According to Seoul's Kaesong Industrial Complex Management Committee, the North will no longer require South Koreans driving to the complex to carry photos and detailed travel plans for every passenger beginning Aug. 3. The North agreed late last month that the documents can be handed in by the committee instead, committee officials said.

   Pyongyang has been tightening regulations over the industrial park that was set up in the North's border town of Kaesong following the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. Other cross-border joint projects, including tours to scenic resorts in the North, have all been suspended.

   Inter-Korean tensions have spiked since conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in Seoul early last year, cutting off food and aid shipments that were sent for the past 10 years under the previous two liberal governments.

   North Korea responded by demanding steep hikes in wages for its 40,000 workers hired by some 100 South Korean garment factories and other small firms operating at the joint park.

   South Korea has turned down the North's demand, and negotiations to settle the dispute have made little progress.