07/30/2004, 00.00
NORTH KOREA - SOUTH KOREA
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Pyongyang accuses Seoul of "kidnapping" defectors from North

Seoul (AsiaNews/AFP) – North Korea denounced the mass transfer of defectors to South Korea as a "planned kidnapping." Pyongyang's statement is its first official reaction to the two-day exodus of nearly 470 North Koreans. The refugees are believed to have crossed into China from where they made their way to Vietnam.

According to North Korea the "kidnapping" was organised "by Seoul and its accomplices." "It was organised and premeditated allurement, abduction and terrorism committed by the South Korean authorities against people in the north in broad daylight," a government spokesperson said. "The South Korean authorities [. . .] will have to pay a high price for them."

The human rights, food and health crises in North Korea are forcing people into neighbouring countries. According to official figures 5,000 North Koreans have escaped to the south since the end of the Korean War in 1953. The number has however been climbing steadily in the last few years: 583 in 2001, 1,140 in 2002, and 1,285 in 2003.

Out of a population of approximately 23 million, 13 million people –57% of the total– are suffering from malnutrition. According to United Nations estimates, the height of the food crisis was reached between 1995 and 1997 when 2 to 3 million people died.

The refugees were secretly transferred in the last few days on two charter flights by Asian Airlines (230 passengers) and Korean Air (227 passengers).

After revealing that it had been working for months to secure the refugees' passage to Seoul a human rights group called for a press blackout on the transfer from Ho Chi Minh City. Observers believe that discretion is Vietnam's main condition for cooperating in the operation. Others assert that Hanoi kept Pyongyang in the dark about what was transpiring. Last week, North Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister was in fact on an official visit to Vietnam.

According to diplomatic sources the two communist regimes have close ties, one providing humanitarian and food aid and the other offering its military technologies. "It would seem Vietnam is playing a subtle diplomatic game," said Carl Thayer, a security expert with the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. Indeed, Vietnam must preserve its relationship with North Korea, whilst not jeopardising its close ties, especially in trade, with South Korea.

Notwithstanding North Korea's accusation that by its acts South Korea was creating "real obstacles" in intra-Korean relations, most observers do not believe that the latest crisis will fundamentally harm the ties between the two countries.

"North Korea is using harsh words as they usually do, but if they are in need of something from the South, such as economic or food aid, they will come back to talk with the South," said Seoul-based geopolitics expert Park Joon Young.

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