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Seoul to intensify penalties for unauthorized civilian inter-Korean exchanges

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : Aug. 8, 2023 - 15:20

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Banner of the Unification Ministry at the government complex building in central Seoul in July (Yonhap) Banner of the Unification Ministry at the government complex building in central Seoul in July (Yonhap)

The Yoon Suk Yeol government is set to strengthen legal consequences aimed at preventing unauthorized interactions between South and North Korean individuals. A new center will be launched this month to strengthen monitoring of such illicit exchanges, the Unification Ministry said Tuesday.

The Unification Ministry plans to issue a legislative pre-announcement of the proposed amendments to the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act in September.

The amended legislation delineates restrictions for South Koreans who have previously violated the act, aiming to prevent them from engaging in exchanges with North Koreans for a designated period.

The amendment will prohibit the specified South Koreans from engaging with North Korean individuals for a period of one year, following the completion or exemption of their sentence, as well as for six months after the payment of fines.

South Koreans are obligated to report to the unification minister in order to obtain approval if they intend to establish contact with North Koreans through meetings, communication or any other method.

The updated bill will additionally introduce grounds for imposing fines in cases of law violations, encompassing broader instances such as breaching approval conditions for activities like travel to North Korea, the import and export of goods, collaborative projects and the operation of transportation equipment.

South Korea is also working toward establishing a platform to monitor instances of violations such as the illegal import of agricultural and marine products from North Korea and to promote compliance with the law.

To that end, the Unification Ministry is set to inaugurate a center specifically focused on compiling instances of unauthorized inter-Korean exchanges on Aug. 17, operating under the auspices of the current South-North Korea Exchanges and Cooperation Support Association.

South Koreans will have the choice to report violations either online or over the phone to the center. After receiving reports, the process will involve legal guidance, followed by customized measures for each case, including both criminal and administrative penalties, as well as on-site investigations.

The Unification Ministry will also intensify its oversight of inter-Korean exchange and cooperation projects conducted by local governments. The inter-Korean exchange and cooperation fund, currently managed by 59 local government bodies at both the upper and lower levels, has a total value of 225.5 billion won ($171.7 million).

Tuesday's announcement aligns with the Yoon government's strategy of reducing its role in facilitating inter-Korean dialogue and exchanges, while emphasizing the establishment of inter-Korean relations grounded in legal frameworks and universal principles.

This policy proposal is noteworthy, emerging approximately four months after the office overseeing inter-Korean exchange and cooperation within the Unification Ministry was downsized and restructured into a bureau in April.

The proposed suggestion in the legal framework reflects the bureau's endeavor to advance "systematic inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation grounded in laws and principles," a senior official, who wished to remain anonymous, during a closed-door briefing.

The official further clarified that sporadic interactions have occurred between individuals from South and North Korea. However, the ministry's assessment suggests that "inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation have reached a state of near-complete suspension."

The Unification Ministry has received a total of 61 cases involving the prior notification of interactions with North Koreans until July this year. These interactions were primarily facilitated through indirect means such as letters, amid a prolonged impasse in inter-Korean relations.