Seoul to gain release of activists soon
By Kim Young-jin
Seoul and Beijing are working toward the release of human rights activist Kim Young-hwan and three other men detained in China, an official said Wednesday, downplaying reports of imminent repatriation.
Earlier reports said the two sides had finalized the release of the group detained for over 80 days in Dandong, Liaoning Province on charges of violating Chinese national security.
“I’ve heard they are working out how and when the group will be repatriated,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “But it’s too early to say they will be released for sure.”
Activists here have been up in arms over the case, saying China initially denied the detainees access to lawyers or arranged for South Korean diplomats to meet or call them.
The group was arrested in the northeastern city of Dalian on March 29 before being relocated to Dandong.
While China has not elaborated on the nature of the detention, observers speculate they were likely involved with North Korean human rights activities, because Kim is an outspoken critic of Pyongyang.
Korean consuls met with each of the four last week and the ministry said they appeared to be in good health.
The border region with China is a hotbed for activists seeking to aid North Korean defectors trying to escape to the South as well as send information in the repressive Stalinist state.
The area has reportedly been on lockdown since December last year, when late North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack.
Analysts say his son and new leader Kim Jong-un will try to crack down on border activities that could weaken his fledgling regime. Some activists speculate the North could be involved in the detention behind the scenes.
Kim, 49, is a former supporter of North Korea's philosophy of self-reliance and gained notoriety for meeting with its founder Kim Il-sung in 1991 after sneaking into the North. He later renounced the ideology and became one of the regime’s harshest critics. Yoo Jae-gil, 43, Kang Shin-sam, 41 and Lee Sang-yong, 31 are also in detention.
China has been under increasing international scrutiny for its handling of refugees and activists along the border.
The matter was discussed last week by Robert King, U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, with Seoul officials during his trip here.
Activists have also called for Beijing to halt its policy of repatriating North Korean defectors, who are believed to receive harsh punishment including torture upon their enforced return.