N Korea slaps travel ban on officials

Three days after the defection of one of its most senior cadres, North Korea has banned officials from travelling abroad, which will further set back efforts to bring peace to the Korean peninsula.

Despite food and fuel shortages, the atmosphere in Pyongyang was calm, diplomats and United Nations officials said. Celebrations for the 55th birthday of the "Dear Leader", Kim Jong Il, will go ahead as planned this weekend but the cancellation of several official trips suggests a battening down of hatches after the defection of Hwang Jang Yop, a senior adviser to Mr Kim.

Western officials in Pyongyang said North Korean officials travelling to Peking were reportedly ordered off their train just before the Chinese border, and a foreign ministry delegation responsible for reconstruction of areas damaged by floods also had overseas travel plans cancelled. "It's got to be a hell of shock, to have someone of that seniority and stature go walkabout," said a Western diplomat in Seoul yesterday. "They must have to figure that if they can't trust him, who can they trust?"

The Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, met his South Korean counterpart, Yoo Chong Ha, in Singapore yesterday to discuss the defection of Mr Hwang, who turned up at Seoul's embassy in Peking last Wednesday with a North Korean businessman. The defection leaves the Chinese in the position of having to choose between their Cold War comrades and their business partners in the South.

South Korea has asked to take Mr Hwang to Seoul, where he is expected to be able to provide unprecedented insights into the military, economic and political secrets of Pyongyang. But Pyongyang insists he has been kidnapped by the South, and demanded his return.

The drama and the apparent North Korean travel ban have imperilled an initiative to hold peace talks with China, the United States and the Koreas. A preparatory briefing was scheduled for last month but the defection makes it less likely than ever that Pyongyang will be coaxed out of its diplomatic cocoon.

More alarmingly, the crisis may jeopardise a programme aimed at defusing North Korea's suspected nuclear- weapons programme. Work was due to begin soon on building light-water reactors to replace older Soviet models but these plans are in question too.

Mr Kim's birthday is the greatest of Korea's national holidays. "I have been here during two or three of these crises before," said a UN official in Pyongyang, "and the city is always calm. But we have food shortages, power cuts and only a few hours' water a day. The outlook is not good."