SEOUL — It was a daring rescue, the stuff of legends.
With the stealth of a covert operation, the South Korean government last month organized an airlift to pick up 468 North Korean defectors who had taken refuge in Vietnam. Aside from a last-minute leak to the media, the operation came off without a hitch and the refugees -- the largest number of Northerners ever evacuated at once -- arrived here safely.
But the airlift has put the South Korean government in an uncomfortable position as it tries to juggle its professed commitment to human rights and relations with its hot-tempered northern neighbor.
The repercussions are threatening to scuttle the next round of six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program and are complicating various projects between the Koreas.
South Korea's national intelligence agency this month issued a rare warning to citizens to be on guard for acts of retaliation by North Korea, particularly when traveling in China or Southeast Asia. Human rights activists Friday revealed that a 24-year-old woman, a former North Korean who is now a citizen of the South, recently had been kidnapped by suspected agents of the North while honeymooning in China.
Meanwhile, the Seoul office of Durihana, a Christian missionary group that helped the defectors who passed through Vietnam, has had two break-ins since the airlift.
The North's communist regime, which normally does not comment on defections, has repeatedly lashed out at its neighbor for what it has called a terrorist operation and an abduction.
"A thrice-cursed crime ... and an unpardonable hostile act designed to bring down the political system" in the North, the official KCNA news service asserted last week. The refugees arrived from Ho Chi Minh City aboard two charter flights July 27 and 28 and were whisked to temporary housing on the outskirts of Seoul, where they were to be questioned by South Korean intelligence agents.
At the request of Vietnam, which feared damage to its relations with its communist ally, the operation was to be kept secret. However, word leaked out and reporters staked out the military airport near Seoul where the first charter plane arrived.
Refugee activists say the North Koreans had escaped to China and then moved to Vietnam for fear that they might be arrested by Chinese police and sent home. They lived secretly in small churches and other shelters near Ho Chi Minh City for months before they were evacuated.
"South Korea deserves credit for taking in such a large number of refugees. It is unprecedented in 50 years," said Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, a Seoul-based organization that helps defectors. "But I think they didn't really have much choice in the matter. It would have been a diplomatic nightmare if these people were dumped back in China."
Besides angering North Korea, the airlift raises vexing questions for the South Korean government.
The most important of them is whether North Koreans are automatically entitled to citizenship in the South.
And if so, to what degree should South Korea take responsibility for tens of thousands of other North Koreans who have fled the hunger and repression of their country?
South Korea's Constitution states that all of the peninsula is rightfully its territory. Refugee advocates argue that by extension, this means all Northerners are technically citizens.
"If North Korea is our land, then the North Koreans are our people, no?" said Kim Seong Min, a North Korean defector who runs Radio Free North Korea, a station in Seoul opposed to the regime in Pyongyang.
"That's the position of the South Korean government on paper. But if they were to put that principle into practice, then every single North Korean who has taken refuge in China should be here."
Fewer than 20% of defectors who try to come to South Korea are successful, he estimated. The vast majority are more likely to be arrested in China and sent back.
South Korea long has maintained a resettlement program for defectors that is not unlike Israel's absorption of Jewish immigrants. New arrivals are sent to a reorientation center -- where they are taught everything from how to use a mobile telephone to South Korean laws -- and are later given housing and payments totaling about $20,000.
In recent days, the government has issued confusing and often contradictory statements about its policy toward defectors.
"South Korea cannot bear unlimited responsibility" for those who flee the North, Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon was quoted as telling local media Aug. 16, only to say the next day, "The government's original position of welcoming all North Korean defectors who wish to come to the South remains unchanged."
More than 1,300 North Koreans have arrived in South Korea this year.
Most defectors come through China, but the South Korean Embassy in Beijing does not generally grant them admission for fear of straining relations with the Chinese. Instead, defectors must make their way to a third country to seek asylum in South Korea.
Even then, according to numerous accounts, they often are not accepted.