09/27/2005, 00.00
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Seoul to consider repatriation of 29 North Korean POWs

by Theresa Kim Hwa-young
The issue will be determined by humanitarian considerations but also by a desire to improve relations with Pyongyang. Seoul wants information about South Korean soldiers held in the North and better results in nuclear talks. For the first time, the number of refugees from the North is down.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – Seoul will consider repatriating 29 North Korean Communist ex-prisoners, Unification Minister Chung Dong-young said during a session of parliament on September 22.

The North Koreans, formerly soldiers or agents, had served long prison terms in South Korea for refusing to renounce communism.

"The government is willing to consider sending back those who wish to go back to the North on a humanitarian basis," Chung told the National Assembly Committee on Unification, Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Hundreds of North Korean soldiers or spies who were captured in the South during or after the 1950-53 Korean War served prison terms. Those who renounced their Communist beliefs were released from prison, while others remained captives until 1999 with some serving up to 43 years.

All North Korean prisoners in South Korea have now been released and 63 of them were repatriated to Pyongyang in September 2000, following the historic inter-Korean summit of June of that year. They reportedly received a hero's welcome in the North.

Chung said that the 29 North Koreans who previously wanted to stay in South Korea apparently changed their mind after receiving reports that Pyongyang is warmly treating those who returned to the North in 2000.

He underlined however that his government will also try to seek the repatriation of South Korean prisoners of war and those who were abducted to the North. According to official figures, more than 84,000 South Korean soldiers were taken prisoner in the Korean War, while 485 South Koreans, mostly fishermen, have been abducted and taken to the North since the end of the hostilities. The South Korean government has only been able to confirm the whereabouts of some 100 POWs, according to the Unification Minister. Pyongyang has claimed that no South Koreans are being held against their will in the North.

Chung indicated that he would consider the possibility of inviting a high-ranking North Korean official to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to be held in Pusan in November.

"If the six-party [nuclear] talks proceed smoothly, it would be possible to ask other member countries whether North Korea is able to attend the meeting as an observer," Chung said, explaining that he hoped that Kim Young-nam, chairman of the North Korean legislature, might come.

A few lawmakers urged the government to invite Kim Jong-il to the APEC summit or to have President Roh Moo-hyun visit North Korea for a second inter-Korean summit.

Roh has said he would only consider a summit with Kim Jong-il after the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear program is resolved.

Meanwhile, the number of North Korean refugees defecting to the South dropped to 567 in the first half of this year from 760 over the same period last year, the Unification Ministry reported on September 21.

Local media reports have speculated on the improving food situation in the impoverished North and tightened border controls as possible reasons.

Since 1998 the number of escapees had steadily risen. They were 133 and 583 in 2001, then jumping to 1,894 in 2004.

The Unification Ministry revealed that North Koreans are having a tough time trying to adjust to their new lives. Most find employment in manufacturing—173 out of 321 or about 54 per cent for this year. Another 76 (23.7 per cent) have found jobs in the health care industry.

Most crimes committed by defectors tend to be violent. Out of 426 cases of crimes committed in the last five years, 343 were linked to violence with 27 leading to the culprit sentenced to prison.

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