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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
The DPRK has handed over six South Korean prisoners and the corpse of a woman back to Seoul on Friday in a handover at Panmunjom, South Korean officials have announced.
The six men, whose ages ranged from 27 to 67, were originally detained for illegally entering North Korean territory. The woman is said by the North Koreans to have been killed in a dispute with her husband, one of the six men detained – a claim the South Korean officials said would be investigated.
“The North sent an official notice that the six will be returned at the neutral truce village of Panmunjom Friday afternoon,” an anonymous Minister of Unification official was quoted as saying Thursday by South Korea’s Yonhap News.
The men would be handed over at 4.20 pm local time, and would be taken to a secure location where they would be questioned about the reasons for their detention, the official added.
He also said that Seoul had no evidence that they were forcibly abducted, and that it was highly likely they entered North Korea by crossing its border with China. If it is found that they entered voluntarily, they could be charged under South Korea’s National Security Law.
Mysteriously, the unification ministry source said that four of the six detainees had been previously mentioned by North Korean state media in February 2010, suggesting that at least part of the group may have been in North Korea for several years.
“A relevant institution of the DPRK recently detained four south Koreans who illegally entered it. They are now under investigation by the institution,” a short Korea Central News Agency bulletin said on February 26, 2010.
As of Thursday the unification ministry source also told Yonhap, “Because the North had ignored the South’s request to send [the four] back or even give information on how these people came to be inside the communist country, we do not really know under what circumstances they were detained and how long they have been in the country.”
One expert told NK News that the news could be Pyongyang’s way of indicating a desire to warm inter-Korean relations, which despite improving in summer have been cooling of late.
“North Korea’s decision to release 6 detained South Koreans is another test for ROK President Park Geun-Hye’s “trustpolitik”. Now it will be up to Seoul whether to reciprocate, using this initiative as opportunity for reopening dialogue, trade and reconciliation” Leonid Petrov, a researcher at Australia National University, told NK News.
“49 North Korean spies have been caught in South Korea in the last decade, 4 of them just this year. Park Geun-Hye could pardon and deport them to the North as a symbolic sign of trust-building aimed at improving inter-Korean relations,” Petrov added, also pointing out that, “South Korea claims that about 500 of ROK citizens – most of them fishermen – are being held by North Korea: If Kim Jong-Un is serious about mending bridges with the South, he should let those people go or, at least, permit communication with them.”
South Korea’s National Security Law makes it illegal for South Korean nationals to make unauthorized contact with North Korea or enter North Korean territory. Normally, North Korean law also forbids South Koreans from entering DPRK territory.
Despite North Korea’s gesture to return the detainees, North Korea specialist Michael Madden told NK News that South Korean authorities should remain vigilant about the incoming citizens.
“ROK authorities should be justifiably wary about these returnees. Who is to say that DPRK intelligence managers did not successfully program, train and task these repatriates–turning them as they might say.
“Because this is a public repatriation that has caught ROK officials off-guard, relevant ROK authorities are most likely a lot more suspicious about the identity or motivations of the returnees,” Madden said, adding that in all liklihood the news is more likely “a gesture signaling to the ROK Administration that a deal might be done on ROK citizens currently detained in the DPRK.”
News that North Korea will release the six detainees comes as Pyongyang agreed Thursday to allow a 50+ strong delegation of South Korean lawmakers to visit the jointly-run Kaesong industrial estate.
In July 2012 68 year old South Korean national Ro Su-hui was arrested after walking from North to South Korea at Panmunjom. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment for illegally entering North Korea and “benefiting the enemy”.