*** INTER-KOREAN RELATIONS
N. Korea Again Presses S. Korea to Return Alleged Defectors
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea is again demanding the return of 11 citizens who recently sailed to South Korea in what is believed to have been a bid to defect from the communist nation, a Unification Ministry spokesman said on Oct. 9.
The North Koreans -- six women and five men -- were found drifting off South Korea's east coast on Oct. 1 aboard a small fishing boat and are now undergoing questioning by South Korea's authorities.
Pyongyang has already made three attempts to persuade Seoul to return the group, which the South has rejected.
Seoul earlier returned a message saying all of the North Koreans had expressed their desire to settle in South Korea and that it cannot repatriate them against their will. But the North pressed again for their return, with a fourth message sent on Oct. 8 through a military hotline on its eastern border, said ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung.
"We sent back our message with the same answer yesterday," Chun said at a press briefing. The reply, as before, said the South is willing to allow the North to verify the intentions of the group firsthand, he added.
In previous cases of defection by sea, the North has tended to make a couple of contacts before giving up on such efforts. Contact was also usually made through the inter-Korean Red Cross hotline at the truce village of Panmunjom, rather than the military hotline. In a 2005 case, the North dropped its demands after three messages sent through the Red Cross channel.
Chun said he "cannot disclose the content of the North's message" due to government policy. The North is believed to be insisting that the 11 people are drifters and not defectors.
The spokesman could not say when the results of the investigation, jointly conducted by the National Intelligence Service, the Coast Guard and other pertinent government agencies, would be released.
The alleged defections occurred at a sensitive time as North Korea reaches out to improve ties with South Korea's conservative government. In a major sign of thawing relations, the Koreas held reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War late last month, the first such event in nearly two years. The North has also toned down denunciations of President Lee Myung-bak.
Investigators earlier said the North Koreans departed from Kimchaek, a port on the North's east coast, on the night of Sept. 27 and sailed as far as 250km southeast into international waters to avoid the North's radars.
Most North Koreans defect to South Korea via China. Defections through tightly guarded inter-Korean sea and land borders are rare.
More than 17,000 North Koreans have defected since the 1950-53 Korean War.
Koreas Set to Hold Talks This Week Despite North's Missile Tests
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea agreed Oct. 13 to South Korea's proposal for talks later this week on preventing flooding of cross-border rivers and resuming reunions of separated families, government officials in Seoul said.
The North's latest reconciliatory gesture comes just one day after it abruptly test-fired five short-range missiles in the East Sea.
Pyongyang has also shown signs that it is preparing additional missile tests in the West Sea, but the officials in Seoul said the North's provocative moves would not affect the upcoming inter-Korean talks.
On Oct. 12, the South Korean government sent a letter proposing that working-level talks be held in the North's border city of Kaesong two days later to discuss measures to prevent flooding of the Imjin River that runs along the western section of the inter-Korean border.
The talks will focus on preventing the recurrence of flash floods that left six dead in the South after the North's sudden discharge of an upstream dam in September, said the officials.
On a separate track, the South's National Red Cross announced that its head, Yoo Chong-ha, sent a letter to his Northern counterpart Jang Jae-on proposing talks on Oct. 16 at the North's Mt. Kumgang resort to explore ways to resume cross-border family reunions.
Seoul hopes to continue reunion events for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, following the latest one last month, the first in nearly two years. The North did not promise to regularize the family reunions at the Red Cross contact in August.
Lee Jong-joo, a spokesperson at the South's Unification Ministry, said the North has agreed to meet with Seoul officials on the proposed dates, but asked to hold both meetings in Kaesong.
The upcoming meetings come in light of thawing bilateral ties following the North's shift to conciliatory diplomacy with the South and the United States.
"Details of the planned talks will be fine-tuned later today," said Chun Hae-sung, another spokesperson at the ministry, adding that Seoul will likely accept the North's request to hold the Red Cross meeting in Kaesong on Oct. 16.
Chun said the Seoul delegation for the flood control talks is expected to be headed by a director-level government official.
When asked about the ministry's position on the North's missile tests on Oct. 12, Chun refrained from offering a clear response, only saying that as far as the inter-Korean talks slated for this week are concerned, he sees "no particular problems" arising from the missile tests.
"We believe that the type of missiles fired on Monday are similar to those that the North has launched on multiple occasions in the past," Chun said.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told South Korean and Japanese leaders at their joint summit in Beijing on Oct. 10 that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il indicated a wish to improve relations with Seoul and Tokyo as well as with Washington. Wen was in Pyongyang last week, meeting with Kim and other senior Pyongyang officials.
Following the Oct. 12 missile launches, North Korea again appeared to be readying to test-fire short-range missiles off its west coast.
"There are signs that the missile launches are being prepared on the west coast," a South Korean government source said, adding they could be part of a routine military exercise aimed at improving rocket capabilities.
Moon Tae-young, spokesperson at the foreign ministry, said the North's latest missile tests constituted "violations of the United Nations Security Council's resolutions 1695, 1718 and 1874 banning all activities related to ballistics missile programs."
"The government once again urges the North to comply with the resolutions," Moon told Yonhap News Agency, adding that officials were still mulling over whether to release an official statement regarding the missile tests.
The Koreas agreed to hold family reunions at their historic first summit in 2000. More than 127,000 people in the South have since signed up for the reunions, but nearly a third of them have died due to old age.
About 16,000 people have been reunited through face-to-face reunions so far. South Koreans by law cannot exchange phone calls, letters or e-mail across the border without government approval.
Buddhists from South, N. Korea Call for Reopening of Mt. Kumgang Tour
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Buddhist leaders from South and North Korea on Oct. 13 jointly pressed for the reopening of tours to a scenic mountain in the North, a project suspended by Seoul last year after a shooting incident.
The call came during a service at Singye Temple, a 6th-century worship house perched at the foot of Mt. Kumgang, to mark the second anniversary of its restoration, said the North's Korean Central News Agency. The temple had been nearly destroyed during the 1950-53 Korean War.
After the worship, the Buddhists issued "a joint prayer statement that conveyed the resolutions of North and South Buddhists to open the way for Mt. Kumgang tourism and the pilgrimage to Singye Temple and to proactively work for the reunification, peace and prosperity of the nation," the report said.
North Korea has been nudging the South to resume the tourism business, a rare source of cash income for Pyongyang now under U.N. sanctions over its nuclear and missile tests conducted earlier this year.
Seoul suspended the Mt. Kumgang tours in July last year after a tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier for allegedly straying into an off-limits military zone along the mountain beaches.
A 21-member group from the South's Jogye Order returned from their one-day trip to the temple.
North Korea Expresses Regrets over South Korean Flood Deaths
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea expressed regrets Oct. 14 over the deaths of six South Koreans who were swept away by a flash flood caused when it opened a dam on the Imjin River. South Korea accepted the remarks, made during working-level talks on flood prvention between the two Koreas, as a "de facto" apology.
At the one-day meeting, held in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, Pyongyang's delegation said it regrets that an "unintentional incident" caused South Korean casualties and expressed deep condolences to the bereaved families.
"North Korea said it feels regrets over the human lives unexpectedly lost in the South in the Imjin River incident. It also expressed deep condolences to the victims' families," Kim Nam-sik, head of the South Korean delegation to the talks and a director-general at the Unification Ministry, said in a press briefing.
The Hwanggang dam was opened without notice in the predawn hours of Sept. 6, causing a flash flood downstream on the Imjin River that runs across the western inter-Korean border. The victims were camping there on a weekend outing.
While dam discharges occur without warning almost every year, this year's was the first to claim human lives. Public opinion toward the North rapidly chilled. North Korea earlier said it had to "urgently" discharge the water after heavy downpours, but Seoul demanded a more thorough explanation and an official apology.
During the talks, North Korea reiterated the discharge was not intentional and promised to give notice before future discharges, Kim said. His remarks indicate Pyongyang had not given Seoul any further explanation.
Kim also said the North Koreans explained that the relevant agency had no choice but to release the water in haste in order to prevent bigger damage. Asked by reporters whether Seoul compromised its position to move dialogue forward, Kim gave no clear answer. "The North officially expressed regrets, and considering the general context, we accept this as an apology," Kim said.
The South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, meanwhile, welcomed the North's remarks as a "considerably positive signal," saying the North "showed its willingness to improve relations with us," Park Sun-kyoo, spokesman for President Lee Myung-bak, said in a briefing.
The positive outcome was expected given the quick communications the two governments exchanged to set up the talks. Seoul proposed the talks on Oct. 12, and Pyongyang's acceptance came the following day, spurring speculation that they had held secret consultations to clear the flood issue.
Chang Yong-seok, an expert with the Institute for Peace Affairs, a non-governmental think tank in Seoul, noted it is rare for North Korea to express regrets. The gesture shows its desire to improve relations with South Korea in tandem with its thawing relations with the United States, he said.
The latest inter-Korean dialogue opened despite the lingering dispute on the North's nuclear and missile programs. The North test-fired five short-range missiles on Oct. 12, just hours after Seoul proposed the talks. Both Seoul and Washington reacted calmly, saying such tests are nothing new.
The North's major newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, called for better inter-Korean relations. "It is the unwavering will of our republic to proactively realize reconciliation, unity, cooperation and exchanges according to the joint declarations" of the past inter-Korean summits, the organ of the Workers' Party said in a commentary. The paper also pressed for reopening tours to a scenic mountain in the North, a project suspended by Seoul last year after a shooting incident.
The Koreas will meet again on Oct. 16 to continue reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. The talks will draw keen attention over whether Seoul will decide to reopen the Mt. Kumgang tour and resume rice aid to the North in return for the humanitarian event.
Pyongyang agreed to hold the latest round of reunions in September after cutting them off for nearly two years amid fraying ties with the Lee administration.
North Korea has rarely offered "regrets," and the expression has been commonly understood as an apology. It offered similar remarks after a naval clash the North initiated on the West Sea border in 2002 that left scores dead on both sides, and after 1976 incident at the Joint Security Area in which two U.S. officers were killed during a dispute with North Korean soldiers.
Allies rethink combined command relocation plan: sources
(Yonhap Interview) EXO's Do Kyung-soo says he's always been into acting
S. Korea to be world's top 5G smartphone-using nation till 2020
(2nd LD) Samsung BioLogics' listing 'legitimate,' stock trading to resume: KRX
Time magazine shortlists Moon as 2018 Person of the Year
Normal operations resume on KTX Gangneung line 2 days after derailment accident
(LEAD) KTX Gangneung line resumes operations 2 days after derailment accident
(LEAD) Renault to produce Twizy cars at S. Korean plant from 2019: sources
(LEAD) S. Korea to nurture healthcare sector based on 4th industrial revolution
President Moon orders safety checks on train services following KTX train derailment
Song Hye-kyo, Park Bo-gum's 'Encounter' will be shown in more than 100 nations
(2nd LD) Koreas to meet IOC in Feb. on joint Olympic bid
N.K. could prepare 'Plan B' if U.S. continues unilateral demands: ex-minister
(LEAD) Trump says 'in no hurry' to negotiate with N. Korea
(3rd LD) No deal yet between allies on dividing USFK costs: official