North Korea releases prisoners in exchange for humanitarian aid

North Korea's release of a fishing boat and its seven-man crew in exchange for humanitarian aid could bode well for North and South Korean reconciliation.

By , Correspondent

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    Captain Kim Chil-yi (r.) and crew members of a South Korean fishing boat pose upon their return at a port of the Sokcho Maritime Police in Sokcho, about 181 miles northeast of Seoul September 7.
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South Korea on Tuesday recovered a fishing boat and its seven-man crew from North Korea after agreeing to an exchange that analysts see as auguring well for inter-Korean reconciliation – though not for an end to the North’s nuclear program.

North Korea released the boat on “humanitarian grounds” after seizing it on Aug. 8 within what it claimed was its “exclusive economic zone” off the Korean east coast. The deal for its return appears to have been masterminded by China.

The boat and its crew, including three young Chinese, had infringed on the North’s “sovereignty” by intruding into its waters, according to North’s Korean Central News Agency. While the boat was returning to the east-coast port of Sokcho, South Korea was preparing to make good on its offer to North Korea of nearly $10 million in rice, instant noodles, and economic aid in the aftermath of disastrous flooding that has further devastated the North’s crippled economy.

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Aid in exchange for prisoners

North Korea, in response to a South Korean offer to send food for people already suffering from terrible shortages, evidently asked for considerably more before agreeing to free the vessel. A spokesman for the South’s unification ministry said North Korea had requested “resources and equipment,” including large quantities of cement, to help staunch the raging waters of the Yalu River that marks the North’s northwestern and northern border with China.

The sequence of the request for aid and the release of the boat added up to what Choi Jin-wook, North Korean analyst at the Korean Institute of National Unification, called “a kind of peace offensive” reflecting the strong influence of China, the source of most of the North’s aid.

Mr. Choi sees the North’s move toward reconciliation as a dividend of the recent visit of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to northeastern China, where he met China’s President Hu Jintao for the second time in recent months.

“China is now explaining to South Korea and the US that North Korea is now changing,” he says, “so North Korea needs to support the Chinese explanation.”

Any connections?

There appears, however, to be little if any relationship between the release of the boat and the conference in Pyongyang this week of delegates to the first conference of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party in four decades. The purpose of the conference appears to be to gather support for the transfer of power from Kim Jong-il to his third son Kim Jong-un – though whether the son will appear or even whether his name will be mentioned remains uncertain.

There is no doubt, however, that North Korea’s release of the boat and South Korea’s gift of aid marks a shift away from the highly charged rhetoric since the sinking of a South Korea navy corvette on March 26 with a loss of the lives of 46 sailors.

North Korea is not likely to acknowledge its role in the sinking, which a South Korean investigation ascribes to a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine, but has said it wishes to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons. North Korea has boycotted the talks, hosted and encouraged by China, since December 2008.

China, placing top priority on “stability” on the Korean peninsula, says it does not hold North Korea responsible for the Cheonan incident but clearly wants to foster close economic ties with both Koreas. Now South Korea’s biggest trading partner, China also has reached a deal with North Korea for access to North Korea’s east coast ports of Rajin and Chongjin for exports from northeastern China.

Analysts strongly doubt, however, if North Korea is seriously considering doing away with its nuclear weapons. “On the one hand, North Korea is cooperating with China, and China wants to say North Korea is being nice to South Korea,” says Choi, but “North Korea did not make any concessions on its nuclear program.”

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