The National Intelligence Service, the Unification Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the National Police Agency have been ordered to keep mum about the defection of 22 North Koreans across the West Sea on Oct. 30. The unusual order required them not to respond to any interview requests or even correct false reports.
A security official on Tuesday said, "The instruction came from above," meaning Cheong Wa Dae.
Another government source said, "It seems President Lee Myung-bak flew into a fury when he read news reports about the latest group of North Korean boat people." The NIS, the agency that supervises questioning of North Korean defectors, was reprimanded for frequent security breaches, he added.
A government official said the order came "because we concluded that the latest incident will have a negative effect on inter-Korean relations."
He suggested that media reports about the defection could needlessly agitate the North Korean regime and lead to a crackdown on defectors along the North Korea-China border area and to ordering border guards to shoot at refugees.
But the source said, "It seems the government was worried that news reports about the latest defection by sea could destroy the government’s hopes of breaking the stalemate in inter-Korean relations."
Seoul is in talks with Moscow over a gas pipeline through the North, and while President Lee Myung-bak strenuously denied he is angling for an inter-Korean summit to top off his flagging presidency, others are not so sure.
The gag order was issued just as the government seems about to change its basic North Korea policy under a new, more dove-ish unification minister. Since Yu Woo-ik took office, the Unification Ministry has permitted religious figures and entertainers to visit the reclusive country on several occasions and businesspeople to resume limited investments in the joint Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex, partially lifting sanctions imposed on May 24, 2010 in the wake of the North's attack on the Navy corvette Cheonan.
When he met UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last Saturday, Yu pledged to consider government-level humanitarian aid to the North through UN organizations. On Tuesday he said Seoul will resume humanitarian aid to the North through the World Health Organization. The ministry is also reportedly looking for the best time to propose a fresh round of reunions of families separated by the Korean War.
The ministry is taking the measures out of an urgent sense that it must open a dialogue channel with the North. Last Thursday Yu said, "We're trying to open a stable dialogue channel with the North."
Pyongyang appears to be softening to these advances. While Yu's predecessor Hyun In-taek was in office, the North Korean press bitterly denounced him by name nearly every day, but Yu is rarely badmouthed.
Some observers warn that conciliatory measures could send the wrong signal to the North. A former senior North Korean official, who has defected to the South, said, "If you still believe you can do something by talking with the Kim Jong-il regime, it proves that you learned nothing from the failure of earlier administrations' North Korea policies."