|President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hold hands during their first summit at the truce village of Panmunjeom, April 27, 2018. They held three inter-Korean summits that year, but six South Korean detainees in North Korea have not been released yet. / Korea Times file|
By Kang Seung-woo
The South Korean government's silence on its citizens detained in North Korea is drawing criticism from those who are claiming that Seoul is intentionally avoiding the issue so as not to ruffle feathers in Pyongyang while pursuing inter-Korean projects.
A petition was posted on global petition website Change.org last month, calling for the release of the six South Koreans seized by the totalitarian state and detained for up to seven years. The petitioner, a youth group called Save 6 Koreans, wrote that the South Korean government and even the United Nations have made inadequate efforts to bring them home.
"We question the United Nations and the South Korean government's lack of effort toward the repatriation of six South Koreans detained in North Korea," it said in the petition.
Three of the six are Christian missionaries, who helped North Korean defectors in China before they were arrested for anti-state activities and spying, and the remaining three are North Korean defectors who hold South Korean citizenship. The missionaries have been sentenced to a life of hard labor.
Referring to the three inter-Korean summits between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018 and a visit by South Korean celebrities and business leaders to the North, it added, "The issue of human rights and the dignity of six lives cannot be held back as a price for maintaining diplomatic relations."
The South's reluctance to negotiate their release is in sharp contrast to the action of U.S. President Donald Trump who sent State Secretary Mike Pompeo to the North to bring back three American detainees in May 2018.
As of Friday, more than 870 have signed the petition. If it collects enough signatures, they plan to deliver it to Cheong Wa Dae, the National Assembly and the U.N. Human Rights Council, urging them to open negotiations with the North to confirm the wellbeing of the prisoners and organize their repatriation.
The youth group is not alone in making such a call.
The Korean Association of Church Communication issued a statement last month, calling the government's reluctance a "shame."
"The South Korean government must step up efforts to at least confirm their status," it said.
Kim Jung, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said the matter has been put on the back burner under the current administration, while it focuses on engagement with the North.
"As the government is aware that its citizens have been detained in the North, it needs to show its determination to have them repatriated home by either raising the matter with the North directly or coordinating with international organizations," he said.
"Given that inter-Korean talks are currently stalled, it would be a better idea to handle the issue with international bodies, which is an option that is less of a political burden for the South."
Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University, said the next time the North seeks economic cooperation or assistance, the South should push harder for separated family reunions and the return of the detainees.
"The Moon administration made a genuine effort to build political trust, but should have demanded more progress on humanitarian issues earlier. Atmospherics are not as important as reciprocity, and human life cannot be replaced like a hotline or a building," he said.