Will North and South Korea get swept away in a feud over a flash flood?
Seoul demanded an apology and clearer explanation Tuesday after six people in South Korea were killed because the North released a surge of dam water without prior notice. North Korean authorities admit that they released the water Monday, but only to offset a sudden, alarming rise in water levels. Still, newspapers in the South are blasting their “Stalinist” neighbor to the North for failing to show sufficient regret.
The water row has the potential to ignite tensions between the two countries, after weeks of friendly gestures from Pyongyang. Some reports suggest the incident was intentional, while others fear it could easily happen again.
The water has been pinpointed as originating in the North, Korea’s Yonhap English-language news service reports:
Seoul officials believe the discharge originated from the Hwanggan Dam, some 40km north of the border, which was reportedly completed in 2007 to produce electricity and provide water for agricultural and industrial purposes…
The discharge took a heavy toll on weekend vacationers. Five of the victims, including an 8-year-old boy and his father, were camping 25km south of the demilitarized zone that bisects the Koreas, while the other was fishing 38km away from the border when they were swept away, according to the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs that oversees flood-related issues.
Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said the government had found little evidence to date that suggested any “malicious” intent behind the action.
Asked if the incident could worsen inter-Korean relations that have shown signs of progress following a set of conciliatory gestures from the North, Hyun remained cautious, saying the government will wait and see how North Korea reacts.
Some South Koreans blame the North for not showing enough regret, as captured in an editorial in the JoongAng Daily, a South Korean English-language daily:
The North seems undisturbed about the three deaths it has caused following this most recent incident, but it should take responsibility for its actions. The authorities on our side should also take responsibility for repeatedly failing to prevent incidents like these.
South Korea had first demanded an explanation on Monday. Later in the day — and in an unusually rapid response — the North gave its reply about high water levels. But South Korean officials said they found the explanation unsatisfactory because there had been no heavy rain in the North in recent days.
South Korea has long feared a “water offensive” from the North. In recent years, North Korea has been building dams on rivers that flow into South Korea, raising the possibility that a sudden release of water, by accident or design, could cause damage in the South.
North Korea, in a downward economic spiral of severe food shortages and economic deterioration, has indicated its eagerness to ease up on access to the economic complex at Kaesong (across the North-South line 40 miles north of Seoul), reopen tours to the ancient city of Kaesong, resume reunions of families divided by the Korean War, and possibly come to terms on resuming tours to Mount Kumkang.