(ATTN: MODIFIES lead, UPDATES with official's remarks on presumed origin of dam water, conservatives' criticism, expert's view on Seoul's response)
By Kim Hyun and Sam Kim
SEOUL, Sept. 7 (Yonhap) -- South Korea demanded an explanation from North Korea on Monday about its unannounced discharge of dam water that left six people dead or missing, a new thorn in recovering inter-Korean relations.
The victims, camping or fishing along a western river, were swept away early Sunday morning after North Korea released a large quantity of dam water without prior notice.
"Our government expressed regrets" and asked the North to give an explanation about the incident, Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said in a press briefing. He said Seoul also "strongly pressed" Pyongyang to give alert messages in the future to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents.
North Korea has yet to respond to the protest letter sent through an inter-Korean hotline, officials said.
North Korea's unannounced water discharges have occasionally caused damage to fish farms and riverside areas downstream of the Imjin River, which runs across the inter-Korean border in the west, since the North began building dams in upper waters in 2000. The latest incident, however, is the first where lives were lost. Three people were found dead Monday morning, while the others were still missing.
Military officials from South Korea and the United States were working together to determine whether the discharge of some 40 million tons of water was deliberate or unintentionally caused by summer downpours. South Korean defense spokesman Won Tae-jae said there was "no sign yet" indicating the incident was a deliberate attack.
South Korea's alert system was also faulted. Won said an army guard reported rising water levels early Sunday morning, but the military command failed to notify the local government, leaving the campers unattended. Flood alert equipment along the riverside also failed to operate at the time of the incident.
"It appears that the combined civilian and military defense system has not practiced a scenario like this before," the ministry spokesman said.
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.
Separately, police found the body of what appeared to be a North Korean boy, aged four or five, that drifted to the South on Sunday.
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. It is said to be able to hold up to 400 million tons of water. Other North Korean dams along the Imjin River are too small to have caused Sunday's incident, said Lee Jae-wook, a spokesman for the state-run Korea Water Resources Corp.
The incident has reignitied criticism of North Korea among conservatives in the South. Inter-Korean relations had shown signs of improvement last month with a string of conciliatory steps by the North.
"If the North discharged the water without a warning because it doesn't care whether campers in the South die, that would be an inhumane provocation," Ahn Sang-soo, floor leader of the ruling Grand National Party, said.
Some watchers were critical of the way South Korea responded. Apart from the failure in its alert systems, the government stopped short of proposing inter-Korean dialogue over the recurring floodwaters.
"The South Korean government, instead of actively seeking solutions through dialogue, is appealing to the North for a positive response. I wonder how much this kind of approach will move the North," Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea expert with the non-governmental Sejong Institute, said.
The Koreas have no formal accord on controlling the floodgates. At inter-Korean talks in recent years, Seoul has repeatedly asked for pre-notification, but the two sides have not been able to settle on technical procedures.
Responding to a protest letter from Seoul in 2005 when a water discharge from the North swept away South Korean fishing nets, Pyongyang explained that its dam water is "naturally released when it reaches the maximum height," according to the Unification Ministry.
There have been no consultations on the matter since the conservative Lee Myung-bak government came to power in Seoul last year.
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