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North's Arrest of American Deepens Freeze in Korea

Asia: U.S., Seoul deny ties to missionary. Detention may be aimed at deflecting attention from submarine incident.

October 08, 1996|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — What would possess a 26-year-old American missionary to swim across a heavily patrolled river from China into North Korea, one of the world's most zealously isolated countries? And what will the North demand of the United States for his return?

The arrest of Evan Carl Hunzike, an American, on charges of spying for South Korea is the latest in a bizarre series of incidents that has driven relations between the two Koreas back into a deep freeze and now threatens to drag in the United States.

Both Seoul and Washington have denied any connection with Hunzike. South Korean security officials Monday dismissed as "ridiculous" the notion that they would have tried to sneak a U.S. citizen with foreign-looking features into secretive North Korea to spy.

A South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman called the young American a "Mr. Don Quixote." Hunzike's relatives said the young man, whose mother is of South Korean origin, and whose family is believed to live in the Seattle area, had been working as a missionary in Beijing before he crossed into North Korea by swimming the Yalu River on Aug. 24.

Analysts said Monday that the North may have announced Hunzike's arrest over the weekend in an effort to divert international attention from the recent incident in which 26 North Korean commandos apparently sought to infiltrate the South aboard a rusty submarine, and from last week's unsolved slaying of a South Korean diplomat in the Russian Far East, in which the South suspects foul play by the North.

In retaliation for the incidents, South Korea has cut off all aid to its hungry neighbor. President Kim Young Sam has also barred South Korean businesses from investing in a new North Korean free-trade zone that had been billed by a hopeful West as a way to forge ties with the insular regime in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

Further, after a meeting of top South Korean officials Sunday, South Korean military and police forces--already on heightened alert--were told that new security measures would be introduced to guard against a possible North Korean terrorist attack.

Security and spot checks will be increased at important domestic facilities, including airports, subway stations, department stores, harbors, bus terminals and power plants. South Korean embassies and trade missions abroad will be protected with more vigilance, as will high-ranking officials.

According to South Korean press reports, the government will also delay signing agreements on the Korean Energy Development Organization, a $4-billion international consortium with the United States, Japan and North Korea that is helping the North develop civilian nuclear power plants in return for Pyongyang scrapping its nuclear weapons program. The program has been cited by the Clinton administration as a showcase of multinational problem-solving.

Pyongyang's motives are notoriously opaque. But analysts in Seoul and Tokyo noted that the North Koreans said they caught Hunzike as he illegally entered the country Aug. 24 but that they did not announce his arrest on spying charges until Sunday--more than six weeks after the arrest and three days after South Korea's Kim began to unveil the security crackdown.

North Korea offered no explanation for the delay.

Tsutomu Nishioka, editor in chief of Modern Korea Monthly magazine in Tokyo, said Hunzike is believed to be the first American civilian arrested by North Korea on spying charges since the 1950-53 war.

In 1968, the U.S. spy ship Pueblo was captured with its crew, who were badly mistreated by the North Koreans. U.S. soldiers and pilots have been captured by North Korean forces along the demilitarized zone, and the crew of a Japanese cargo ship was seized in the 1980s. But no American civilian has been taken prisoner in recent memory, scholars said.

White House spokespersons have said that Hunzike is apparently being treated acceptably. Because the United States has no direct diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, Swedish representatives have been negotiating on America's behalf. The Swedish embassies in Seoul and Beijing declined to comment on the Hunzike case Monday.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Monday that efforts to establish contact with the captive American so far had failed, both through the Swedes and directly via the North Korean mission to the United Nations.

Nishioka suggested that North Korea might now try to use Hunzike to pressure the United States not to go along with a South Korean proposal to reinstate joint military exercises; they have not been conducted for two years because of improving relations with the North.

But there was no shortage of other theories to explain Pyongyang's behavior.

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