South Korea Tries to Appease North Ahead of Nuclear Talks

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Attempts by the South Korean government to mollify the communist North ahead of crucial nuclear talks later this week have drawn strong reaction from anti-North Korean activists, adding to the very friction Seoul was hoping to avoid.

A recent anti-Kim Jong-il demonstration by South Korean conservatives so upset the North that it threatened to withdraw from an international college-level athletics competition currently underway in the South Korean city of Daegu.

The boycott threat prompted President Roh Moo-hyun to make a hasty apology, and North Korea sent its delegation to the World University Games.

But Roh's apology in turn led directly to fresh protests by anti-North campaigners over the weekend.

Outside the games venue in Daegu, about 20 protestors waving banners calling for Kim to be toppled were confronted and then attacked by a group of North Korean journalists, who were in the city to cover the event.

Riot police then battled to restore order, and at least one protestor was injured.

The senior North Korean delegate at the games threatened once again to pull out if the anti-Pyongyang demonstrations continued and the protestors were not punished.

The warning was repeated by the North's official KCNA news agency, which quoted officials as saying South Korea "should offer an apology over yet another anti-Pyongyang protest, punish the criminals and provide a responsible guarantee that a similar incident will not occur."

In Beijing this week, senior officials from the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas are due to sit down to discuss the 10-month-old standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

Seoul's sensitivity to the North's feelings in the run-up to the talks was additionally seen when South Korean police stopped activists from launching helium-filled balloons carrying transistor radios across the border into North Korean airspace.

The campaigners had planned to launch more than 20 helium-filled balloons, each carrying about 25 small radios, to be carried by the wind across the world's most heavily guarded frontier.

But police stopped the group as its truck approached a town at the border on Friday and said the launching had not been authorized.

One member of the group, Norbert Vollertsen, then tried to prepare one of the balloons for launch as a symbolic gesture, but in ensuing scuffles, police officers had forcibly prevented him from doing so, said fellow volunteer Douglas Shin, a Korean-American pastor.

Vollertsen, a German physician who once worked in the North but was expelled in 2000 for criticizing the government, now campaigns full time on North Korean humanitarian issues as part of an underground network that helps facilitate defections and asylum bids by North Koreans.

Shin said earlier that the group, funded by U.S. and European human rights groups, wanted to give ordinary people in the North the opportunity to hear radio broadcasts from the outside world, perhaps encouraging more to flee.

The small radios used in the project are capable of picking up at least three stations beaming transmissions in the Korean tongue, including the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Asia

With an eye on potential North Korean listeners, Congress recently voted to expand the service's daily Korean-language broadcasting from four hours to 24 hours.

Recalling events in Eastern Europe in the dying months of the Soviet Union, the activist network says it hopes the flow of refugees from North Korea - more than 700 have defected to the South this year alone - will become a flood and eventually bring down the regime.

According to aid agencies, the humanitarian situation in North Korea has become critical.

Andrew Natsios, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, told a conference in Washington last month that he estimated as many as 2.5 million North Koreans may have died of famine and other causes under Kim's repressive regime.

A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate in June would allow North Koreans to apply for refugee status and asylum in America.

See Earlier Story:
Activists Plan to Float Radios into North Korea
(Aug. 13, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow