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A Plan to Assist North Korea Defectors Is Alleged

Nauru, a Pacific island nation, expected U.S. aid if it helped spirit defectors out of China. The State Department denies any such scheme.

April 27, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — The tiny, troubled Pacific island nation of Nauru was recruited last year in a secretive, madcap scheme to spirit North Korean defectors out of China, according to documents and people involved.

The idea was pitched by a group of political activists, some of them American, who were staunchly opposed to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Nauru officials said they were led to believe their nearly bankrupt nation would be rewarded with U.S. financial aid and with help to reform a corrupt offshore banking and passport-selling operation.

The plan called for Nauru -- eight square miles of guano and rock located halfway between Hawaii and Australia -- to open an embassy in Beijing and a consulate in Washington, using its diplomatic cover to help senior North Koreans defect to the United States.

Kinza Clodumar, a former Nauruan president and finance minister who made two trips to Washington in the last six months, says that the country was offered $1 million as well as free staff and office space for their diplomatic missions.

" 'You help us with the North Korean scientist, you are good boys and we will look at what U.S. aid can assist you,' " Clodumar said they were told. " 'What we need is for you to set up an office in Beijing. We give you the staff. You don't pay for a thing.'

"In our view, it seemed reasonable. We were told it would help to stabilize the Pacific region. We wanted to help the Americans," Clodumar said in a telephone interview from his office in Melbourne, Australia.

The timing coincides with sharply rising tensions between the Bush administration and North Korea, a last bastion of communism and a country seemingly intent on developing nuclear weapons.

The operation ultimately did not succeed, in part because of political turmoil in Nauru that delayed opening the Beijing embassy. But it is believed that the group of activists nevertheless helped some prominent North Koreans escape to the United States. Among those who reportedly escaped is a 75-year-old nuclear scientist, Kyong Won Ha.

The operation was first reported last weekend by a Sydney-based newspaper, the Australian. State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher denied the report.

"We did not pay for the establishment of any Nauru diplomatic missions, we never promised to provide financial assistance to Nauru or requested their cooperation in any other sphere," Boucher said in response to questions about the story.

A well-respected human-rights activist who works with North Korean refugees in China said that he and a handful of others were aware of the Nauruan plan and thought it was being orchestrated by government operatives from the United States, Canada and New Zealand.

"These people seemed to be working for their respective governments, but they were operating at arm's length so they would have deniability," said the activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "This was not the first time they were trying to get high-level military assets to defect to the United States."

The Nauruans say they were not approached directly by any U.S. government official, but instead received a vaguely worded invitation that was sent through a Washington lawyer, Philip A. Gagner, who had represented the country for several years.

In a letter dated Oct. 12, which was obtained by the Australian newspaper and seen by the Los Angeles Times, Gagner wrote to Nauru that several governments, "including governments in the Pacific and the United States government, would like to have the assistance of the Nauru government in a diplomatic matter of great sensitivity, which also involves a country [not Iraq] which may have acquired weapons of primary concern to other governments in the region and the world." The letter did not mention North Korea by name.

Intrigued by the letter, a delegation of Nauruan officials flew to Washington a week later. There they held several meetings concerning reforms demanded in their banking system by the United States, which believed that Nauru's offshore banks and passport-selling schemes were being used by terrorists. They also were told more in detail about the North Korean operation, according to a memo about the meetings that was written by Gagner.

"This project, when finished, is likely to bring Nauru very high prestige and the gratitude of both the United States and China governments," the memo stated.

Reached by telephone at his Washington office, Gagner said he could neither confirm nor deny the authenticity of the documents because of rules concerning client confidentiality. Clodumar said, however, that the documents were genuine.

Clodumar said that the Nauruan delegation never spoke directly to U.S. government officials about the North Korea operation but to people he believed were acting as intermediaries.

One of them was Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official who has written and spoken frequently about human rights in North Korea.

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