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(2nd LD) Seoul under fire for excluding defector-turned-journalist from covering talks with N. Korea

All Headlines 18:40 October 15, 2018

(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; ADDS unification minister's comments in paras 12-13 )

SEOUL, Oct. 15 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's unification ministry has excluded a North Korean defector-turned-journalist from covering Monday's inter-Korean high-level talks, sparking a controversy over its possible violation of freedom of speech and discrimination against the people from the North.

Citing safety concerns and other "special" circumstances, the ministry earlier decided to exclude Kim Myeong-sung of the Chosun Ilbo, a local daily newspaper, from the group of reporters sent to the truce village of Panmunjom for the high-level talks with North Korea.

Kim has worked for the country's largest-circulation newspaper for years and is currently covering the unification ministry that handles inter-Korean affairs.

"High-level talks are held in a confined space, and Kim is widely known for his active reporting. We are asking for cooperation since the decision is deemed necessary under such special circumstances, rather than trying to restrict the press," Baik Tae-hyun, ministry spokesman, told reporters.

The spokesman added that there had been no pressure from the North about the reporter and that the ministry made the decision on its own by taking into account various factors.

Asked if his exclusion means defectors-turned-journalists can no longer cover inter-Korean talks, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told reporters before leaving for Panmunjom that he could not answer such an assumption-based question.

The press corps of the unification ministry chooses pool reporters for inter-Korean events based on predetermined orders.

The ministry's decision, however, is drawing strong protests from the press corps as it was made at the last moment without sufficient consultations with reporters in advance.

The move is also raising eyebrows as it could be seen as an action focusing too much on how the North reacts rather than protecting freedom of the press and a decimation against North Korea people defected to the South.

The unification ministry press corps issued a statement later in the day, arguing that Kim's exclusion is "inappropriate" and represents a "serious violation" of freedom of the press.

The press corps also demanded an apology from Minister Cho and asked for efforts to prevent such an incident from happening again.

Cho later expressed regrets but apparently defended his decision, saying that it was based on consultation among relevant government agencies and that he could make a similar decision should he face a similar situation going forward.

"Though there might require some efforts to address the issue of lack of consultations with the press corps on procedural aspects, I think that it is likely that the same decision will come out if situations are the same as today," the minister said during a hastily-arranged press meeting in Seoul after his talks with the North Korean officials.

Monday's inter-Korean high-level talks were held on the southern side of Panmunjom inside the heavily fortified demilitarized zone that bisects the two Koreas, which technically remain at war as the 1950-53 war ended only with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

About 30,000 North Korean defectors have came to South Korea so far, raising worries about their welfare, relatively high jobless rates, and challenges they face in getting used to a new way of life and possible discrimination.

kokobj@yna.co.kr
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