August 03, 2009 12:00
There were fears Saturday that North Korea is determined to hold the crew of a South Korean fishing boat for a long time after official North Korean media reported on the "illegal intrusion."
The official [North] Korea Central News Agency reported Saturday that a North Korean Navy patrol boat seized a South Korean ship that "illegally intruded deep" into North Korea territorial waters in the East Sea on Thursday, adding that authorities were conducting "a concrete investigation."
Pyongyang does not normally accuse South Korean fishing boats that stray across the Northern Limit Line, the de facto border, of "illegal intrusion." That could mean the North will detain the four crewmembers of the 800 Yeonan for a long time in the name of investigating them, according to Lee Jo-won, a professor at ChungAng University.
A Hyundai Asan staffer at the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex, identified as Yoo, has been held incommunicado since March, with the North saying the investigation of his alleged seditious activities continues.
"Since it has announced that an investigation is underway, Pyongyang is unlikely to kindly explain the progress until the investigation is completed," a government official said. "The problem is that it's difficult to predict when the investigation will be over."
The joint South Korea-U.S. military exercise slated for Aug. 17-27, which the North is objecting to, could be a variant in the detention of the fishermen.
During a Seoul-Washington joint military exercise in March, the North shut the border three times, effectively taking South Korean staff at the Kaesong complex hostage.
If the North Korean military captures a South Korean boat, it is reported to the North's Navy Command, the Army's General Staff and the National Defense Commission, according to the intelligence authorities. "Pyongyang's top leadership will make a decision on the incident," an intelligence officer said. "The longer the internal investigation lasts, the more likely it is that the North will try to use the fishermen as a bargaining chip."
But others say since the North wants to resume dialogue with the United States, it will not detain the fishermen long. "North Korea must know that if it plays tricks with the fishing boat, evidently a humanitarian issue, it will invite strong denunciation from the international community," a researcher at a state-run think tank said.
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