N. Korea threatens South over secret refugee flights

`TERRORIST CRIME': Pyongyang pushed the use of the word `terror' to a new extreme of absurdity in an indignant protest over Seoul's humanitarian mission


Fri, Jul 30, 2004 - Page 6

North Korea accused the South yesterday of committing "a terrorist crime" when it brought in more than 450 North Korean refugees from Southeast Asia in secretive flights this week.

North Korea broke its silence a day after the end of an operation that brought the most refugees from the North since the 1950 to 1953 Korean War. Seoul cloaked the exodus in secrecy partly to avoid provoking Pyongyang.

"South Korea will be held responsible for the aftermath of the operation and all forces that co-operated with it will pay a high price," the South's Yonhap news agency quoted the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland as saying. The statement carried no specific threat.

One way the North could retaliate would be to boycott North-South ministerial talks slated to be held in Seoul next week. Officials in Seoul said they were concerned because the North has ignored requests to discuss the agenda.

The North's committee called the refugee operation "the greatest act of hostility intended to crumble our system".

"South Korea's cooperation with the United States' bill designed to overturn our system of socialism by damaging our republic's international reputation and trying to accomplish regime change is a criminal act of anti-nationalism and will never be forgiven," the spokesman said.

The US House of Representatives last week unanimously passed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which calls for US support for refugees and US-led international pressure on the North to safeguard rights and ensure aid transparency.

Many lawmakers in South Korea's left-leaning ruling party have criticized the US legislation as interference in North Korea's affairs that might prompt Pyongyang to pull back from negotiations.

But the Uri Party, which supports reconciliation with the North after decades of enmity, is expected to push for a dramatic budget increase for the unification ministry's North Korea projects, including refugee resettlement, officials said.

South Korea worked behind the scenes to bring the refugees to Seoul and did not divulge where the flights this week originated.

Most of the refugees are be-lieved to have made their way through China and slipped into Southeast Asian countries. Sources in Vietnam said hundreds had gathered there this week.

South Korean officials said Seoul's decision to purchase 100,000 tonnes of rice from Vietnam to ship to North Korea as aid was driven by price and not linked to the refugee exodus.

The Korea Times in its editorial hailed the success of Seoul's quiet diplomacy and the flights.

"In the future, however, [we] may need large ships for their transportation, along with a little louder diplomacy," the daily said.

This week's flights cleared a backlog of more than a year of refugee arrivals in Southeast Asia. But aid workers estimate that at least 100,000 -- and probably twice that many -- North Korean refugees are still hiding throughout Asia, mostly in China.

In the first half of this year, South Korean took in 760 refugees. The UN has condemned North Korea for human rights violations, and a mid-1990s famine thought to have killed 1 million people drove many residents to flee.