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Asia

North Korean defectors want more active role against former homeland

South Korea has agreed to hold high-level talks with the North, marking a breakthrough on the peninsula. It comes as the South Korean army has stepped up recruitment but has steered well away of North Korean defectors.

Some North Korean defectors say their former homeland will only be free if Kim Jong-il is executed

Some North Korean defectors say their former homeland will only be free if Kim Jong-il is executed

A man dressed in a grey jumpsuit, wearing a crude mask of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il, is tied up with rope and leaning against a post. Several men in camouflage fatigues wield plastic rifles. They take aim and fire.

The North Korea People's Liberation Front, a group made up of former North Korean soldiers who defected to the South, has put on a rally.

North Korean defectors tearing up a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

North Korean defectors tearing up a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

Forty-four-year-old Lee Cheol-soo, a 10-year veteran of the North's army, says he would like to trade in his plastic gun for a real one.

He says that after after 60 years of dictatorship, the only way North Korea will be free is if Kim Jong-il is executed.

Forty-year old Park Dae-gook agrees. The former officer, who was once in charge of political education within the military's ranks, says North Korean soldiers have a strong psychological advantage over the South Korean military.

Building up the fighting spirit

"North Koreans have a real fighting spirit," Park says. "Everyone thinks that the US and South Korea are their enemies, and that they could win any war."

He adds that he does not think such a spirit exists here in South Korea and he and the other members of the Liberation Front want to help the military overcome this deficit.

Last month, they sent a request to the government to allow them to form their own army division. They say they could train South Korean soldiers to fight against the North better. If war breaks out, they want to be sent to the forefront.

A spokesman from the Ministry of Defense here declined to be interviewed for this report, but he did say that the government was reviewing the group’s proposal.

The South Korean army is not keen on admitting North Korean defectors to its ranks

The South Korean army is not keen on admitting North Korean defectors to its ranks

Risk of creating a loose cannon

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst at Seoul's Kookmin University, explains that in the past both Koreas trained defectors to infiltrate enemy lines but times have changed and he thinks there are at least two good reasons why the North Korean defectors should not be armed.

"The creation of such a group, especially if it is publicized, will be seen by the North Koreans as a provocation and indeed it is a provocation," he explains. "Second, if you arm these people, most of whom are ideologically motivated and probably quite selfless with nothing to lose, you will create a loose cannon."

Lankov says the Ministry of Defense is probably also concerned that these defectors could be spies. But Park Dae-gook thinks that serving again as soldiers is the best way for refugees to prove that they are loyal to the South.

"Many South Koreans are suspicious of us refugees," he says. "They think we betrayed our government before so we might do it again. We're in a desperate situation and that's why we want to go to the frontline."

Perhaps the inter-Korean talks will put a lid on all such military posturing.

Author: Jason Strother (Seoul)
Editor: Anne Thomas

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