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  September 5, 2000  

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The Koreas

Spies' repatriation causes unease in Seoul

By Ahn Mi-young

SEOUL - While North Korean ex-spies were saying goodbye to friends and supporters in South Korea as they prepared to return to Pyongyang on Saturday, an angry woman rushed to the scene and confronted one of them.

''Why you are returning? What about the people you had abducted and sent to the north and killed there?'' cried Park Chun-sun, 63, a South Korean now residing in Japan.

She had flown to Seoul to protest the return of one of the ex-spies, whom she accuses of being responsible for the death of her brother in Pyongyang. She said the spy, whom she called ''Shin'', had taken some South Koreans in Japan, including her brother, to the North in the 1970s. Park said her brother was executed in Pyongyang in 1985 when Shin, the spy, was arrested by Seoul authorities.

Her anger and pain mirror the anguish of South Korean families who are waiting for the return of some 300-400 former soldiers who are believed still living in North Korea, but whose existence the North has denied. The issue has proven difficult for President Kim Dae-jung, who refuses to press his northern counterpart, Kim Jong-il, on the question of South Korean prisoners of war.

Sixty-three former North Korean spies and guerrillas, who spent an average of 36 years in prison in the South after refusing to renounce communism, were repatriated to the North as part of Seoul's reconcilation with Pyongyang.

Last month, Koreans from both sides of the divided peninsula were allowed to visit family members they had not seen since the end of the Korean War in 1953. One hundred North Koreans came Seoul and 100 South Koreans went to Pyongyang for a four-day reunion. The visits were an offshoot of an agreement reached during the historic meeting in Pyongyang in June between the two Korean leaders.

On Saturday, the mood was bittersweet. But it was a happy moment for the North Korean spies who had dreamed of a reunion with families back home.

After four decades, Kim In-soo, 76, was going to be reunited with his wife and two daughters in North Korea: ''I bought wrist watches and handbags for my wife and children,'' he said. Ahn Young-gi, 72, who spent 38 years in prison, said he would visit Pyongyang's famous restaurant, Okryukwan, which he himself designed and constructed as an engineering supervisor before being dispatched to the South as a spy.

It was a sad day for seven of the 63 North Koreans - 49 ex-spies and 14 former guerrillas - as they said goodbye to South Korean wives and children at the truce village of Panmunjon inside the demilitarized zone.

But as the ageing men - from 66 to 90 years old - were welcomed home as heroes and hailed as ''true revolutionaries'', there was an uneasiness in Seoul over Kim Dae-jung's apparent soft stance toward Pyongyang. Critics say he had given much but gained little. South Korea's two largest newspapers have criticized him for his reluctance to challenge the North on the issue of South Korean prisoners held by Pyongyang.

''Under the principle of reciprocity, North Korea may also well respond to Seoul's unconditional return of these 63 people by immediately returning 343 South Korean former soldiers living in North Korea,'' said Lee Sang-Hoon, who leads the Korean Veterans Association, which counts 6.3 million ex-servicemen as members. ''This matter of military morale is essential to our young men keeping their patriotism intact,'' he said. ''If our soldiers fought for democracy, only to be forgotten by their motherland, for what cause can our young men work for and fight on the military front?''

Jung Jin-hong, a communications professor at Korea Jonghap Art University, said: ''North Korean leader Kim Jong-il proudly says his power comes from a united military. Then where should our president stand . . . when our military's morale is flagging?''

President Kim himself acknowledges the tightrope he has to tread. In a television interview on Sunday night, he said: ''It also hurts me to see many families here crying for their fathers in North Korea. Although North Korea denies the existence of former South Korean soldiers there, we all know [they are there]. But instead of public official talks, Seoul will privately stay in contact with Pyongyang to resolve this matter.''

(Inter Press Service)


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