x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Four South Koreans held by Pyongyang

North Korea is questioning four South Koreans, who may be rights activists or Christian evangelists, for illegally entering the country.

The US missionary, Robert Park, arrives in Beijing after illegally entering North Korea to draw attention to rights abuses there.
The US missionary, Robert Park, arrives in Beijing after illegally entering North Korea to draw attention to rights abuses there.

BEIJING // North Korea is questioning four South Koreans for illegal entering the country, the third time since December that Pyongyang has reported such an unlawful breach of its border. South Korean authorities said yesterday they were struggling to identify the four people, while some observers suspect the individuals are Christian evangelists or human rights activists.

The North has so far refused to release the detainees' identities. Officials in the South's unification ministry said none of more than 1,000 South Korean citizens working or travelling in the North had gone missing and the South's military said no holes were found in barbed wire fences along the Korean border. Choi Seung-yong, a Seoul-based activist, quoting informants in China, told Yonhap news service the four crossed the border between China's Tumen city and Namyang in the North several days ago. He said they had entered the North in an attempt to meet its secretive leader, Kim Jong Il.

The last person to infiltrate the North was Robert Park, a US missionary who walked into the North across the frozen Tumen River from China on December 25 to draw attention to Pyongyang's rights abuses. He was freed on February 6 after expressing what the North described as "sincere repentance". The North has said it is also holding an unidentified US citizen arrested for illegal entry from China on January 25. That person's motives are unknown and US officials have not confirmed the detention.

Rhee Bong-jo, a former South Korean vice minister of unification, said in an interview that the individuals probably did not cross into North Korea via the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas, because the North did not use the typical term "defection by righteous decision", a euphemism it uses to describe those who enter via the DMZ. The crossing into North Korea is the latest in an unusual series of recent incidents in which people entered the country illegally, and raises the question of why these individuals go to the world's most isolated country on their own volition, risking getting shot by border guards while crossing.

Mr Park waded across the Chinese-North Korean border on Christmas Day to "deliver God's message" to Mr Kim to improve human rights conditions. Last month, a South Korean in his 40s flew to Yanji, a Chinese city near the border, and entered straight into North Korea, despite repeated protests by a panicked Chinese taxi driver, who took him from the airport, South Korean media reports said. Observers say the reasons people enter the North illegally vary. Some might go out of religious zeal; others because they live on the margins of society and seek new lives.

Chun Ki-won, a Christian pastor in Seoul known for helping North Korean refugees, said in an interview that the latest case is also probably religiously motivated and related to Mr Park's trip. Kim Yong-hyon, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul's Dongguk University, also suspected this was the case, but did not exclude other possibilities. Mr Park had been scheduled to hold a press conference on Friday in New York to talk about his experience in North Korea, but postponed it, according to Jo Sung-rae of the Seoul-based group Pax Korean, a North Korean human rights advocacy group. Mr Jo served as an intermediary between Mr Park and the media during Mr Park's December crossing.

Mr Jo, however, denied speculation that the four South Koreans were part of Mr Park's Christian aid group. "Robert Park has nothing to do with this incident," Mr Jo said by phone. Besides religious motivation, some people are drawn to North Korea, which promotes itself as a "people's paradise", on ideological grounds. "During the Cold War, many people harboured fantasies about North Korea," said Lee Chun-kun, the director of the North Korean research arm at the Institute of Future Korea, a think tank in Seoul. "There are still many of those people."

Observers say individuals living on the margins of society or those with personal problems also see North Korea as an escape from their ordeals. These individuals include criminals and military service deserters. Last year, for example, a 30-year-old South Korean man on a police wanted list crossed the DMZ. While it has used some defectors for propaganda purposes in the past, the North also turns away many as well.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse