Tue, Aug 10, 2004 - Page 9 News List

North Korea to become next East Germany?

First the US House of Representatives passed an act on human rights in the North. Then the South took in hundreds of its refugees. To Pyongyang, this smacks of a coordinated effort to bring about an Eastern Europe-style collapse

By Martin Nesirky  /  REUTERS , Seoul

When thousands of East Germans fled their country, communist leaders blamed the West while hardened locals joked that the last refugee to leave should put out the lights.

Fifteen years after the Berlin Wall fell and half a world away from unified Germany, energy-starved North Korea is echoing the former East German government, accusing the US and South Korea of trying to precipitate an Eastern Europe-style collapse.

"This is, however, as foolish an act as trying to put an end to the sun," the North Korean Foreign Ministry said.

It spoke of "flesh traffic"; East Germany referred to human traffickers.

Few in the South want or expect an imminent mass exodus to eclipse North Korea in the way the 1989 to 1990 rush to West Germany fatally sapped East Berlin's legitimacy and its workforce.

But the South's airlift last week of a record 468 North Korean refugees on two secretive flights from a Southeast Asian country alarmed the North in several ways, regional analysts say.

It was less concerned about losing disenchanted people it cannot in any case feed and more worried about the size of the operation and South Korea's decision to mount it, they said.

Ma Kyung-jo of the South Korean Unification Ministry's Policy Coordination Division said a long-running crisis over the North's nuclear weapons ambitions added to Pyongyang's unease.

He and other analysts said another crucial factor was the unanimous vote in the US House of Representatives, just days before the airlift, to pass the North Korean Human Rights Act.

It calls for Washington to support refugees and lead pressure on the North to safeguard human rights and ensure aid transparency. Pyongyang said it was full of lies.

Coordinated Action

"It was inevitable for North Korea to think the current moves by the US and South Korea are some sort of coordinated action to weaken the North's system," said Paik Hak-soon, research director at the Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul.

Pyongyang said the confluence of the bill and the airlift was "by no means accidental."

"North Korea's harsh words about countries such as the US, saying they are trying to bring down the North, reflect their concerns about the stability of their regime," said Yu Suk-ryul of the government-funded Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul.

Other analysts said the North was probably glad to be rid of people it regarded as malcontents.

"I would suspect they are not that sad to see them go," said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

Aid workers, many from evangelical Christian groups, estimate that at least 100,000 North Koreans are still hiding, mostly in China.

Noh Ok-jae, director of the Good Friends refugee aid group, said it was the scale of the airlift -- the biggest group since the 1950-53 Korean War -- that prompted Pyongyang to react.

Nascent economic reforms have brought markets but prices are beyond those without access to plots to grow produce to sell. Industry is creaking and electricity is short, but North Korean leader Kim Jong-il still pumps money into his 1.1-million-strong military.

Retaliation

North Korea skipped ministerial talks with the South this week, seemingly piqued by the airlift. Pyongyang also said the operation did not bode well for six-way nuclear talks.

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