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DONG Yong-Sueng

Safety First in Dealing with North Korea

DONG Yong-Sueng

July 25, 2008

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The fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist near the Mount Geumgang resort by a North Korean soldier on July 10 should never have happened. In the past, whenever a South Korean strayed into a restricted area, the visitor would be detained and then released when identified as a member of a tour group.

North Korea's explanation so far has only fueled speculation that the shooting was premeditated. For example, the North claims warning shots were fired when the victim, a 53-year-old housewife, ignored an order to halt and tried to flee. But a South Korean near the scene said he heard only two shots and then watched from a sand dune as soldiers checked the victim, Park Wang-ja. She was shot twice from the rear, suggesting no warning shots.

Another discrepancy was the timing. Closed-circuit TV shows the victim leaving her beach resort hotel at 4:30 a.m. The North said the shooting occurred at 4:50 a.m., meaning she walked 3.3 kilometers in 20 minutes. The South Korean witness said he heard the gunfire around 5:20 a.m.

Even North Korea appears to be perplexed by the incident. Nevertheless, it has refused to allow an on-site investigation by South Korean officials and has declared the case closed. Although the North expressed regret about the death, it said South Korea should take responsibility for the incident and apologize. Until then, no more visitors from South Korea would be allowed, the North said. In fact, Hyundai Asan, the South Korean company that operates the trips to Mount Geumgang, suspended the tours after the shooting on the east coast of the peninsula.

On January 29 th 2004, both the two Koreas signed an agreement on South Koreans visiting the Gaeseong industrial complex just north of the Demilitarized Zone and staying at Mount Geumgang. Under the agreement, the North is required to guarantee the protection of South Korean tourists, and investigate any incident. In this sense, it is obvious that the North violated the agreement with the fatal shooting of an innocent civilian.

Besides, the law on Mount Geumgang Tourist Zone enacted by the Permanent Committee of the People's Supreme Assembly on November 13, 2002, also prescribes compensation for damages and deportation as the strongest sanctions. North Korea's infringement on the agreement is nothing new but the shooting was the first time that someone has been killed. Whether the shooting was premeditated or not, the North can never justify the fact that the tourist was gunned down by a North Korean soldier in cold blood.

Numerous human exchanges have been made for more than a decade but in fact, visitors are mostly those from the South, rather than those from the north. It can be said that such a big number of people have been exposed to danger of death by gunshot. If the North cannot take measures to guarantee the safety of people from the South, people will no longer visit the North because not only Mount Geumgang but also Gaeseong, Pyongyang will never be safe, either. Paradoxically, North Korean officials themselves have canceled its plans to visit the South several times citing security problem if the slightest danger is perceived.

Some people are worried that the incident may undermine inter-Korean relations. Ironically, President Lee Myung-bak scheduled a call to resume stalled reconciliation talks the same day of the shooting. Lee's overture softened his hard-line approach toward Pyongyang but he continues to link bilateral cooperation with progress on dismantling the North's nuclear program. The North quickly rejected the request as “an intolerable insult.”

The top priority should be the safety of the people, not bilateral relations. That is duty and responsibility of a nation and the North cannot be an exception. When the nation gives up this duty, it becomes meaningless as a nation.

The North must get to the bottom of the case. This issue should be resolved even at the cost of cooling of inter-Korean relations. The South Korean government should suspend Gaeseong tours until security of its people is guaranteed. Thinking of visit to Gaeseong as safe under the circumstances - under gunpoint - will leave room for the North to mistreat South Korean visitors. The South should clearly recognize the danger of visiting the North and demand security guarantee from the north.

The South Korean government should strongly demand the North Korean side cooperate in a joint probe into the case and the fact-finding team should be dispatched at the earliest possible date. Rather than resolving the issue passively through Hyundai Asan the government should come forward to take the issue. On the other hand, those who neglected to warn and to offer safety information to the visiting tourists should be held responsible, too.

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