North and South Korea squabble over defections, offers of military talks

Flags of China and North Korea are seen outside the closed Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningbo, China, on April 12, 2016.
Flags of China and North Korea are seen outside the closed Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningbo, China, on April 12, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - The two Koreas stepped up an angry war of words on Friday (June 3) as tensions mounted over a series of North Korean defections and the South’s rejection of Pyongyang’s repeated offers of military talks.

Tensions have been running high on the divided Korean peninsula ever since the North conducted its fourth nuclear test in January followed by a long-range rocket launch.

In the past month, a new source of friction has emerged with two cases of group defections by North Korean staff working in Pyongyang-run restaurants in China.

A dozen women and their restaurant manager arrived in Seoul in April, and three others from a separate restaurant followed them this week.

North Korea insists the staff were duped and effectively kidnapped by South Korean intelligence agents and are being held in the South against their will – an accusation Seoul categorically denies.

“The allurement and abduction clearly proves that the puppet forces of south Korea are the most hideous human rights abusers,” a spokesman for the North Korean Red Cross said in a statement.

Referring to the latest case of the three women who had been working in a restaurant in the northern Chinese province of Shanxi, the spokesman said they were the victims of a sophisticated, “premeditated abduction”.

He said South Korean agents “lured” the women away from their work and spirited them across the border with Laos and then into Thailand.

Seoul’s unification ministry dismissed the “groundless” accusations on Friday, and said North Korea could better spend time examining why its citizens wanted to flee.

“We hope North Korea will look back on the continued defections and use it as an opportunity to improve the human rights and livelihood of its people,” ministry spokesman Jeong Joon Hee said.

The South Korean government estimates that Pyongyang rakes in around US$10 million (S$13.8 million) every year from about 130 restaurants it operates – with mostly North Korean staff – in 12 countries, including neighbouring China.

Tough UN sanctions imposed on North Korea after its January nuclear test significantly curtailed the isolated state’s ability to earn hard currency, making the restaurants an even more important source of income than before.

There have been reports of staff not being paid, with restaurants pressured into increasing their regular remittances to Pyongyang.

Another recent source of cross-border tension has been South Korea’s negative response to a proposal from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to hold military talks to defuse the situation.

Seoul argued that the offer amounted to little more than diplomatic posturing given Kim’s renewed commitment to expanding the North’s nuclear arsenal.

In a statement issued late Thursday, the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said the South’s rejection of talks was confrontational.

“If they turn their back on us, the result will be miserable,” the statement said.

“Our response will be the toughest offensive aimed to push them deeper into the abyss and lead them faster to self-destruction,” it added.

In Seoul, the Unification Ministry said such bellicose rhetoric only served to underline the duplicity inherent in the North’s talks proposal.

“We can see that North Korea is proving that its previous demands for dialogue was just an insincere posturing,” spokesman Jeong said.