Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo said Wednesday he will look into the money-for-prisoner scheme used by former West Germany in tackling the issue of South Korean abductees in North Korea, rekindling concerns about its feasibility.
In his debut facing parliamentary questions, Lee pledged to sustain humanitarian matters as a top priority in Seoul’s approach to Pyongyang despite “difficulties” such as bilateral sanctions imposed after the communist country’s fatal attacks on a South Korean corvette and a border island in 2010.
“I think a Korean-style freikauf model is worth considering. The government will conduct an in-depth study on the issue,” he said in response to a suggestion by Rep. Shin Jae-kwon of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy.
“We probably should approach humanitarian issues first, though there are difficult problems in inter-Korean relations including the May 24 sanctions.”
Freikauf, which translates into “buying freedom,” was a confidential policy run by West Germany under which it is thought to have brought back more than 33,000 political prisoners from the East by paying about $51,000 per person between 1963 and 1989.
The system was first floated in late 2013 by Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae as a tool to bring home some 1,000 South Koreans who have been staying in the North against their will after the 1950-53 Korean War.
Lee’s remarks, however, could revive controversy given lukewarm public sentiment toward the idea of buying prisoners’ freedom, as well as concerns that any large-scale financial assistance will help the Kim Jong-un regime beef up its military capabilities and afford additional nuclear tests and other provocations.
The Unification Ministry has also expressed skepticism, saying last March that it was “difficult to apply the German method though we acknowledge its point.”
With Seoul grappling with frosty cross-border ties, Lee raised the need for nonpolitical engagement such as a restart of tours to a scenic mountain resort in the North, yet stressed that Pyongyang should guarantee the safety of tourists.
The tour to Mount Geumgangsan was suspended in the aftermath of a 2008 killing by a North Korean soldier of a South Korean tourist who strayed into an off-limit area.
“For inter-Korean dialogue to be meaningful, it has to be about tours to Mount Geumgangsan or other practical exchanges,” Lee added.
“But safety measures must come first as the tour was halted in light of the accident.”