An official walks down a corridor of the unification ministry at the government complex in Seoul in this file photo taken July 28, 2023. (Yonhap)
The unification ministry handling inter-Korean affairs said Tuesday it has launched a probe to verify details of unauthorized meetings between South Korean filmmakers and members of a pro-North Korea group in Japan.
The move came as the ministry has been seeking to tighten the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act amid heightened inter-Korean tensions.
Under the law, South Korean nationals are required to file prior notification with the government before contacting members of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan.
Among those who have been requested by the ministry to clarify why they did not file a prior notification are documentary director Kim Ji-woon and producer Cho Eun-sung, who respectively took part in films shedding light on discrimination facing members of the pro-North Korea group in Japan.
Currently, hundreds of thousands of Koreans live in Japan, many of them descendants of Koreans forcibly brought to Japan as laborers during Tokyo’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
The ethnic Korean community, however, was later divided into two separate groups, with each supporting South and North Korea, respectively.
The ministry said the probe is aimed at verifying the details of their meetings and promoting inter-Korean exchange in an orderly manner rather than fundamentally blocking all exchange.
“The issue was raised in a recent parliamentary audit and we are in the stage of verifying the details,” a ministry official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
“It is true that the law had been loosely applied in the past but the government’s stance is to establish order and a system for exchange and cooperation based on law and principle,” the official said.
When asked about recent cases in which prior requests to meet members of the pro-North Korea group for academic purposes were denied, the official attributed the rejection to grim inter-Korean relations.
“We are managing the system in a prudent manner, (permitting) only essential humanitarian cases,” the official said, citing “grave” circumstances stemming from North Korea’s provocations.
Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho reaffirmed the stance but also hinted at taking a more flexible approach depending on changes in inter-Korean relations.
“Given inter-Korean situations, the unification ministry is taking an extremely prudent stance on contact that is neither essential nor pressing,” Kim said in a meeting with foreign correspondents stationed in Seoul.
“I would like to say that measures will be taken in a slightly more proactive direction should the situation improve to a certain extent,” he added.
Critics have raised concerns that the latest measure could hamper all forms of civilian inter-Korean exchange and cooperation.
In a separate case, the ministry is in the process of imposing a penalty on independent lawmaker Youn Mee-hyang for attending an event organized by the pro-North Korea group without notifying the government in advance.