08/31/2004, 00.00
SOUTH KOREA - NORTH KOREA
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Inter-Korean talks fail again

Defectors' influx is stumbling block between North and South.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – North Korea cancelled talks on economic cooperation with South Korea once again. The meeting was called off after Pyongyang did not reply to Seoul's request for a preliminary meeting. Today the two sides were scheduled to discuss plans to build a railway line on the North Korean side of the inter-Korean border as well as roads and industrial plants with South Korean capital.

"We hope to [. . .] quickly resume the suspended inter-Korean dialogue to discuss pending economic-related issues," South Korea's Unification Ministry said in a statement. Inter–Korean relations worsened in the last month after North Korea called South Korea's rescue of 457 North Korean defectors a "planned kidnapping".

Defections play an important role in shaping South Korean domestic and foreign policy. Seoul's refugee resettlement plans are closely tied to the flow of defectors coming through China. "We need to know the exact number of asylum-seekers in China because the [Chinese] government and [South Korean] civic groups give different estimations," a Seoul official was quoted as saying in South Korea's press. Seoul also wants to know how long refugees stay in China and what routes they take to reach the South. Beijing's cooperation is therefore indispensable. Should Chinese authorities however refuse assistance, the South Korean government is prepared to turn to South Korea-based non-government organisations (NGOs) dedicated to helping refugees.

Although South Korea is in principle open to North Korean defectors, it has lately shown some reticence. Some NGOs have gone so far as to accuse the South Korean government of turning its back on North Korean defectors for fear of provoking Pyongyang. These accusations follow comments by South Korea's Unification Minister, Chung Dong-young, who this month called on activists to refrain from helping North Koreans to defect, saying that doing so "could harm inter-Korean relations".

Anecdotal evidence suggests many defectors stay in China for up to four years before attempting the perilous trek to the South. Often they travel to a third country to seek refugee status in South Korea. South Korea is reluctant to accept defectors coming from China fearing negative repercussions on its relations with Beijing. It is also concerned about where they come from.

The number of North Korean refugees in China is estimated to range from tens of thousands to 300,000. (MA)

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