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South Korea Floats Cash for Prisoner Exchange With North

South Korea's new Prime Minister nominee Lee Wan Koo listens to a question during a confirmation hearing in order to examine his qualification at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015.

The South Korean government is considering the establishment of a cash-for-prisoner exchange program with North Korea. Most of the people Seoul wants to free are prisoners of war who have been held by the North since 1953.

Lee Wan-koo, who was recently appointed South Korea's prime minister, told parliament this week he wants to bring home prisoners of war who have been held in the North for more than 60 years, as well as other South Koreans who have been abducted by Pyongyang.

One way to possibly do this, he said, is to pay Pyongyang, the same way West Germany paid East Germany during the cold war to free thousands of political prisoners under a program called “Freikauf.”

He said a Korean-style ‘Freikauf’ is worth considering, and he will direct the government to conduct a more in-depth study on the issue.

The South Korean government believes that more than 500 POWs, who were captured by the North prior to the end of the Korean War in 1953, are still being held today. Since hostilities ended, North Korea is believed to have arrested or abducted hundreds more citizens from the South for a variety of reasons.

Choi Sung-yong said North Korean agents kidnapped his father, who was working in a fishery near the border in 1967. Choi is now the president of a group called the Representative of the Abductee's Family Union. Choi said North Korea took his father because he was a well known South Korean navy captain during the war.

He said North Korea brought his father to an open trial and executed him. His father was later the first abductee to be awarded a medal from the Park Geun-hye government.

The South Korean Unification Ministry first floated the idea of paying for the release of POWs and political prisoners a few years back. Under the “Freikauf" plan, West Germany paid more than $50,000 for each prisoner.

There is not strong public support in South Korea for this approach. Many people are concerned that, like paying a ransom to kidnappers, a cash-for-prisoners program could encourage more abductions in the future. Pyongyang might also demand an exorbitant price and/or use the money to fund its nuclear program.

Choi Sung-yong does not think there is the political will in either Seoul or Pyongyang to repatriate the POWs and abductees.

He said he is thankful for the prime minister's mention of it in principle, but wonders if North Korea is even willing to sell those it holds.

Some abductees ended up working in factories or mines or in other harsh conditions. Many of the families of the POWs captured during the Korean War do not even know if their loved ones are still alive.

VOA News Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.