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Korean talks: North Korea defectors worried about their fate

Pyongyang is demanding the return of defectors to the South, where there is concern that the government could accede to that demand in order to get discussions on nuclear weapons and security issues back on track.

North Korea is demanding the return of 13 defectors to the South as a condition for the resumption of talks with Seoul, with support groups for thousands who have fled the repressive regime in the North saying there is genuine fear that Seoul might give in to Pyongyang's demands and that their lives might be at risk.

Pyongyang is demanding that 12 women who had worked at a North Korean restaurant in China and their manager be returned to the North after it was claimed on a television program that the women had not been told they were being taken to South Korea in 2016 and that they have been tricked into going by the South Korean intelligence services.

On Saturday, the North Korean Red Cross demanded that the women be sent back to Pyongyang and repeated the accusation that the women had been kidnapped.

The demands coincide with Pyongyang cancelling a high-level meeting scheduled for last week that was designed to build on the agreements reached when South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, at the border village of Panmunjom late last month.

The North is also angered at joint US-South Korean military exercises that are going ahead, but analysts say the demands are a frequently used tactic by Pyongyang.

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North Korean diplomacy

"This is very much a typical approach to diplomacy that the North employs, demanding more and more before it makes any concessions – and as soon as the other side does make concession, then demanding even more," said James Brown, an associate professor at Tokyo's Temple University.

"For Pyongyang, there is no sense of quid pro quo; it is all about the opposition giving and then asking for more," he told DW.

"There has clearly been a lot of very positive news coming out of the peninsula in recent weeks, and I have seen polls in which a majority of South Koreans now see Kim in a positive light, but it is clear that the regime there has not changed one bit and these people are being used simply as pawns," he added.

And even the recent thawing of ties between the two Koreas has not been enough to convince all North Koreans to await a positive outcome, with two defectors picked up in a small boat by a South Korean navy warship in the Yellow Sea on Saturday morning. One of the two is a member of the North Korean military and the defections were the first directly into South Korean territory since April.

Pyongyang has reportedly stepped up patrols on its heavily fortified border with South Korea as well as its more open frontier with China in an effort to stop defectors, while there have also been reports of punishments being increased for anyone caught attempting to flee. The Liberty Korea Post web site has also reported that North Korea sentenced 24 defectors to death for continuing a campaign against Pyongyang from exile, such as by sending propaganda into the North.

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Fear, anger among defectors

The result is fear and anger among the defector community in the South, says Song Young-chae, a member of the Seoul-based Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea.

"A lot of defectors and the groups that support them are very angry at the South Korean government's attitude because they are failing to protect them," he said. "My defector friends say claims that the 13 restaurant workers from China were forced to come to South Korea is ridiculous."

"They are here of their own free will – but if any of them are sent back to the North then there is a very high likelihood that they will be killed," said Song, who is also a professor at the Center for Global Creation and Collaboration at Seoul's Sangmyung University.

"To many people, it looks as if the South Korean government is simply agreeing to every North Korean demand and defectors here are very nervous," he said. "Many of us are calling on the international community to protect defectors and also the people who are in the political prison camps in the North," Song added.

"President Donald Trump must raise this issue with Kim when he meets him in Singapore," he said. "There can be no agreement without the North improving its human rights."

Song noted that some of his defector contacts have been so concerned after hearing that the North had passed death sentences on some who have fled the regime and reports in another state-run newspaper that said all defectors would be punished for their actions that many are seeking to leave South Korea for the safety of a third country.

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Aggressive demands

Brown agrees that the aggressive demands that the North is making of the South will inevitably be of serious concern to the defectors.

"Of course, they will be wondering if they are safe," he said. "Moon is under great pressure and clearly wants the talks with the North to resume and succeed, but he built his reputation on being a lawyer for human rights so I doubt he will actually order the repatriation of any defectors."

"I imagine that Pyongyang has reached a similar conclusion, so they will soon ask for something else instead," he suggested.

And because that request will be more palatable than sending defectors back to a deeply uncertain future, the South may give in to that request. And then, Brown expects, they will make another demand to test Seoul's resolve.

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