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How North Korea has skillfully exploited a defector standoff with South

The ability of North Korea to turn the rescue by the South of a boat full of North Koreans into a propaganda coup has surprised observers.

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Could the North be creating a diversion?

The standoff on “the boat people,” as they have come to be called, adds another dimension to the range of issues that South Koreans would like to discuss with the North. But for now the North refuses to talk about anything until all 31 of them show up at Panmunjom.

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Ha Tae-keung, president of North Korea Open Radio, which broadcasts by shortwave into the North, believes “the North Korean strategy is to make this issue the most important for South Korea.” The goal, he says, is to divert attention from South Korea’s demands for North Korea to apologize for the sinking of the corvette the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea nearly one year ago in which 46 sailors died, and then for the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island that killed two marines and two civilians.

“It’s a good opportunity to change the agenda,” he says. And if the South refuses to respond, he predicts the North will find an excuse to arrest a South Korean inside the Kaesong Economic Complex adjacent to Panmunjom where South Koreans run 50 small factories staffed by 46,000 North Koreans.

Another theory for why North Korea is making so much of the boat people is the desire to hold down defections. In January and February, 354 North Koreans defected to the South via China and then Mongolia, Vietnam, and Thailand, bringing the total number of North Korean defectors in South Korea to 20,761.

“They fear more defectors,” says Park Jin-keol at the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights. “They want to prevent defections. They want to use the boat people as propaganda.”

Some people are highly critical of the way South Korea has handled the incident. Kim Sang-hun, who runs the North Korea Human Rights Database Center here, believes authorities should have sent them all back without propagandizing them or giving them the option of staying in the South.

“They said they arrived by mistake,” says Mr. Kim. “Now they’ve eaten good food and seen the sights.” Exposure to such courtesy, many people here are certain, guarantees North Korea will imprison those who do return.

While the problem simmers, the images of the relatives and the sounds of their plaintive pleas appeal to Korean hearts. “I miss you daddy,” says the daughter of one of the four who have chosen to stay. “Please come home quickly.”

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