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.

A screen shot of a North Korea state website shows a video of an interview of North Korean family members of one of the four North Koreans among the 31 North Koreans who drifted into South Korean waters aboard a fishing vessel last month, in Seoul March 9.

North Korea has turned the rescue of 31 North Koreans whose boat drifted into South Korean waters into a huge embarrassment to the South with a propaganda offensive that’s drowning out critical North-South issues.

The problem is that four of the 31 are so impressed by what they’ve seen in the South they’ve said they want to stay where they are, in South Korea. North Korea authorities are saying, in effect, all or nothing – all 31 have to come home or none at all.

Just to make the message dramatically clear, North Korea has demanded South Korean officials bring the four holdouts to the truce village of Panmunjom for a rendezvous with their wailing relatives. No sooner had South Korea predictably rejected that idea than the North circulated Internet images of the relatives appealing to the four to come home.

The video footage shows up on a North Korean website that’s not available to the relatively few North Koreans who have computers and is blocked by South Korean police from screens in the South. Nonetheless, South Korean websites have picked it up from elsewhere, and the message is coming through in the national media.

It’s a safe bet that none of the 31 from the boat are seeing or hearing any of this, but analysts agree that all of the propaganda over their fate is more effective than the normal rhetorical flourishes that characterize the nonstop North-South confrontation.

“No matter what, if they go back, I don’t think they’ll save their families,” says Dan Bielefeld, with the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights. “By stating they weren’t going back, those four families were already in big trouble.”

The North's propaganda vs. the South's hospitality

The real shock here, however, is not so much the harsh fate that’s assumed to await the relatives in North Korea as the skill and toughness with which North Korea has exploited the whole episode.

A special irony of the incident is that their boat was trolling for shellfish in waters near the same island in the Yellow Sea that North Korean gunners shelled in November when its engine failed and they were picked up early last month. The flimsy craft is now moored at the island, about eight miles from the North Korean coastline.

South Korean officials have showed the 31 some sights and given them comfortable quarters and good food, a luxury denied most North Koreans.

The officials admit, however, they never anticipated North Korea’s refusal to admit the 27 who want to go home when they were escorted to the border crossing at Panmunjom.

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.

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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