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South Korean Spy Agency Warns of North Korean Terrorist Acts - 2004-08-16

South Korea's intelligence agency has warned of possible North Korean terror attacks following last month's exodus of hundreds of refugees from the communist North.

A rare public statement by the National Intelligence Service warned of threats to South Koreans living abroad, particularly those working with North Korean refugees in China and Southeast Asia.

An unnamed spokesman for the agency said there was no indication of a specific threat. But officials said Pyongyang's increasingly menacing rhetoric merited heightened caution.

Already-fragile relations between the two Koreas chilled in the past month after Seoul airlifted some 460 North Korean refugees from a camp reported to be in Vietnam.

Seoul had hoped to keep the airlift quiet so as not to embarrass Pyongyang, but the affair received worldwide publicity. Since then Pyongyang has unleashed a series of verbal attacks against the South, accusing Seoul of orchestrating a massive kidnapping operation.

Pyongyang says those responsible for helping plan the recent airlift will "pay a high price" for their involvement.

Tim Savage, a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, says North Korea sees the airlift as part of a broader plot to topple the communist regime.

"There are people, particularly in the United States but elsewhere as well, who have openly spoken of North Korea going the way of East Germany, and moreover encouraging North Korea to go the way of East Germany through the refugee flow," he said.

A mass exodus of refugees from East Germany and other parts of Eastern Europe in 1989 led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and foreshadowed the end of communism in Europe.

The flow of North Korean refugees has increased markedly in recent years, driven by repression and hunger after years of famine. More than 5,000 have defected to the South since 1953, when the Korean War ended in an uneasy truce, nearly 3,000 of those have arrived just since 2001.

Mr. Savage says that despite the threats, North Korean terrorist attacks are unlikely.

"It would be a major break from North Korea's movements towards reconciliation with South Korea, and it would also cut off a lot of what North Korea is trying to get in terms of economic cooperation with South Korea, as well as get off the U.S. list of terrorist-sponsoring states," said Tim Savage.

North Korea is one of the world's poorest countries, and depends on international humanitarian assistance to help feed its 22 million citizens.