A South Korean woman on a tour of North Korea’s Mount Geumgang (Kumgang) was shot and killed early in the morning of July 11 by a North Korean sentry. This something that was not supposed to happen. It is the biggest misfortune to happen since tours of Mount Geumgang began in 1998. First, we would like to express our sympathy to the family of the deceased. The ripples from this will be many, beginning with a temporary halt to the tours. It also casts a shadow on President Lee Myung-bak’s attempt to make certain fundamental changes to his North Korea policy, as he expressed later that morning in his address to the National Assembly on the occasion of its opening.
Of greatest urgency will be clearing up what actually happened. The Northerners say the tourist was spotted in a military area by a Northern sentry who ordered her to stop, then fired when she failed to comply. Whether that is really how events unfolded or not is something that will have to be ascertained by the responsible authorities from North and South. The North needs to do what it can to avoid any lingering doubts by cooperating fully with the inquiry.
Serious problems remain, even if the North’s version of the story is truthful. You would naturally have to assume an unarmed woman wandering about near the Mount Geumgang tourism zone is a Southern tourist. There would be no reason to think the woman intended to enter a military area. All you would have to do is send her back to the lodging facility. It is not as if there are South Korean soldiers facing off nearby, like along the demilitarized zone, for example. It is was clearly an excessive use of force to have shot at her. How ever would you have imagined you could get shot near Mount Geumgang?
There will have to be appropriate follow-up measures. Depending on the result of the inquiry, the North will have to take action that satisfies the South and the family of the deceased. There will also have to be a through plan for preventing similar incidents from happening in the future. It will need to be determined whether Hyundai, as the party responsible for the Mount Geumgang tourism enterprise, had the proper safety arrangements in place. We need to know how on earth it was the enterprise was being operated for something like this to have happened.
We in the South must not, however, respond too emotionally. While an inquiry does needs to take place, it at least appears to have been an accidental occurrence. It needs to be kept separate from the Mount Geumgang tourism project and the Gaeseong (Kaesong) industrial complex and the whole of inter-Korean relations. There must be no careless intensification of military tension between the two sides.
Relations between North and South are being put to a new test, having already soured since the inauguration of the new administration. The situation is such that a misstep could make relations lose their way. The greatest effort needs to be made to use this as an opportunity to turn a bad situation into a better one. The North holds the key. It must take this incident most seriously.
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