Seoul grants political asylum to 460 refugees from N. Korea

South condemned by Pyongyang for aiding record group of defectors


TOKYO - North Korea denounced the South Korean government yesterday for granting asylum this week to nearly 460 North Korean defectors, characterizing Seoul's actions as "abduction and terrorism."

North Korea, which has had good relations with the government of President Roh Moo Hyun, broke two days of silence during which two groups of North Korean defectors were airlifted by the South Korean authorities to Seoul. They came from Vietnam, according to human rights groups in Seoul.

As more details emerged of what has amounted to the largest-ever single arrival in the South of Northern defectors, it became clearer that the group's size had resulted from the increasing popularity of a smuggling route out of China, and not from a rise in people fleeing directly from North Korea. The recent flow of people out of the North has remained steady or perhaps diminished, experts said, because China has tightened security on its border with North Korea.

The South Korean government brought the North Koreans to Seoul on Tuesday and Wednesday in an operation it tried to keep secret, refusing even to disclose the origin of the flights. Clearly fearful of antagonizing the North, as well as the other countries through which the defectors had traveled, the South said only that they had come from a Southeast Asian nation.

Seoul has yet to make an official comment on the matter. A foreign ministry official, speaking by phone from Seoul and on the condition that his name not be used, acknowledged the political consideration behind the government's efforts to minimize attention on the defectors.

"We don't want to get North Korea angry over this inflow of North Korean refugees," he said. "There's no reason for North Korea to get angry, since they are coming to my country voluntarily, but we don't want to make North Korea unnecessarily angry."

Yesterday, however, North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland issued a statement declaring that "South Korean authorities will be held wholly accountable for the ensuing consequences and other forces who supported them will have to pay a high price for them," according to the Korean Central News Agency.

In recent years, many South Korean church and human rights groups have become increasingly organized in helping North Koreans defect to South Korea. With the impenetrable Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, the only way out of the North has been to cross into China and then into Southeast Asia before finally going to South Korea. According to human rights organizations, the safest, cheapest and thus most popular route has been through Vietnam.

Kim Sang Chul, president of the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees, which has helped Northerners come to the South, said that because of the Vietnam route's popularity, Northern defectors last fall began streaming into Ho Chi Minh City faster than they could be sent to South Korea. Kim's organization sent three officials to Ho Chi Minh City in May to investigate the defectors' condition.

"We found that they were experiencing many difficulties living in Vietnam because they had been waiting to come to South Korea for three to nine months," Kim said in a telephone interview from Seoul.

The foreign ministry official, while refusing to identify the location where they had been waiting, confirmed the details of how they had ended up there.

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