N Koreans soften line on defector

Seoul (AP) - North Korea yesterday indicated it could accept the defection of Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranking official to flee the Communist state to seek asylum in South Korea.

The apparent softening of its position could ease the way for Mr Hwang to leave the South Korean consulate in Peking, where he has been holed up since asking for asylum there on Wednesday.

"If he was kidnapped, we cannot tolerate and we will take decisive counter- measures," said a spokesman of the North's Foreign Ministry. "If he sought asylum, it means that he is a renegade and he is dismissed."

South Korean officials took the comment as indicating North Korea was abandoning its earlier position, in which it had rejected Mr Hwang's defection as "inconceivable and impossible." Right after his defection, North Korea accused South Korea of kidnapping him and threatened to retaliate. Mr Hwang, 73, a key Communist theoretician, was once the tutor of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il.

Yesterday's comment "seems to imply that North Korea will accept it if independent parties, like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, rule that Hwang is a political defector," said Kang Ho Yang, spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry. The North Korean spokesman told the official news agency that the North asked China to investigate Mr Hwang's "disappearance."

His comment was the first sign of a possible breakthrough in the stand- off at South Korea's consulate in Peking, where the North Koreans had been keeping a vigil.

In deciding whether to allow Mr Hwang to proceed to South Korea, China faces a dilemma. It does not want to infuriate North Kore. But China also has diplomatic ties with Seoul and wants to encourage commercial ties. In Peking, China kept silent yesterday on Mr Hwang's fate, while police guarded the South Korean consulate.