South Korea warns N Korea ‘reckless’ in defector row

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SEOUL – South Korea’s leader warned troops on Friday to guard against North Korea’s “reckless” provocations as a new dispute erupted over four defectors from the communist state. President Lee Myung-Bak stressed the need for separate branches of the military to work together to counter the threat from the North’s special warfare forces, which Seoul says number 200,000.
“Through reckless military provocations, they (the North) are continuing to threaten peace,” he told a multi-service officer commissioning ceremony at Gyeryongdae 160 km (100 miles) south of Seoul. The defector dispute is the latest episode in a year of high tensions, and comes as US and South Korean troops stage major military exercises that the North has branded a rehearsal for invasion.
The South tried Friday to repatriate 27 North Koreans whose boat drifted across the border on February 5. But it says two men and two women who were also in the boat chose to stay in the South — a claim rejected by Pyongyang. The North as of late afternoon had refused to send anyone to the frontier village of Panmunjom to accept the 27, apparently because it also wants the other four returned.
A Seoul unification ministry spokesman said the North had asked for the crossing channel to remain open later than normal, but the reason was unclear. The communist state late Thursday accused the South of “despicable unethical acts” and said the group on the boat had been held hostage in a bid to fuel cross-border confrontation. The North said their craft had drifted in fog and all those on board had demanded they be sent home.
But Seoul had pressured them to remain in the South “by appeasement, deception and threat”, it said. “This cannot be interpreted otherwise than a grave provocation to the DPRK (North Korea),” said a statement attributed to the North’s Red Cross. Seoul’s Unification Minister Hyun In-Taek told parliament the four had not been forced to stay.