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Moon asked Kim to free South Koreans in North

May 11,2018
South Korea has appealed to North Korea for the release of its own citizens, a Blue House spokesman said Wednesday night, after three American detainees were freed in a surprise move ahead of a landmark summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump.

In a brief text message to reporters, Yoon Young-chan, President Moon Jae-in’s senior secretary for public affairs, said Moon had asked Kim for the speedy release of six South Korean detainees in the North when the two leaders met on April 27 for their historic summit. It was the first time Moon’s office revealed that they had this conversation. However, Yoon did not mention Kim’s response.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, believes the regime is holding six South Korean nationals - three Christian missionaries and three North Korean defectors - after they entered the country on their own will. North Korean defectors are given South Korean citizenship once they settle in the South and still considered South Korean citizens by the government even if they re-enter the North.

Since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, 516 South Koreans are believed to have been kidnapped by the North, but the Unification Ministry does not count them as detainees and has not explicitly said it is working toward their release.

When asked about the reason for counting the six as detainees on Thursday, a ministry official said the three missionaries and one defector had been officially identified in North Korean media as detainees, while the two other defectors had been found by the government “through various routes” to be held as detainees.

The key difference between these six people and the others, the ministry said, is that the six detainees were thought to have entered the North voluntarily.

According to North Korean media reports, Kim Jeong-uk was detained in October 2013, Kim Guk-gi in October 2014 and Choe Chun-gil in December 2014. All three were missionaries.

Kim Jeong-uk was sentenced to life in hard labor on May 30, 2014, on charges of plotting to overthrow the state. The two other missionaries were convicted of the same crime and received the same sentence on June 23, 2015.

A North Korean defector named Ko Hyeon-cheol was detained in May 2016, according to North Korean media reports, but the reports never mentioned whether he stood trial.

The Unification Ministry has not disclosed the identities of the other two defectors, citing their personal safety. It remains unclear whether the six detainees are still alive, and the North has never mentioned their fate after trial.

A South Korean government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity on Thursday said Seoul was looking forward to bringing up the issue in future high-level meetings with North Korea, one that could possibly come as early as next week.

The issue of South Korean detainees was not explicitly mentioned in the Panmunjom Declaration signed between Moon and Kim on April 27, but officials in Seoul said they were hopeful that an agreement on humanitarian issues could lay the groundwork.

Both Koreas agreed to “swiftly resolve the humanitarian issues that resulted from the division of the nation,” namely the reunion of families separated by the war.

Ahn Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies, said talks between the two countries on the detainee issue could be deadlocked because the North wants the release of 12 workers who defected from a restaurant in China run by North Korea in April 2016. The North claims they were kidnapped by South Korea’s spy agency while South Korea argues they defected voluntarily.

“North Korea released the three Americans because there was some sort of deal in another area,” said Ahn, who served in the North Korean army near the border village of Panmunjom before defecting to South Korea in 1979. “North Koreans never give for free.”

Kenneth Bae, an American missionary who was held in North Korea from Nov. 3, 2012, to Nov. 8, 2014, for trying to overthrow the government, believes the country won’t be freeing the South Koreans anytime soon, because doing so might shed fresh light on its human rights abuses.

“If they return to South Korea and reveal all that they went through in the North, it might cause huge repercussions,” Bae said.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]