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'Spy ship' row mars Korea rice diplomacy



South Korea's hopes that the way to better relations with its northern compatriots would be through their stomachs were dashed yesterday when it was announced that Pyongyang had seized a ship delivering free rice and charged the crew with spying.

Seoul's Vice Unification Minister, Song Yong-Dae, confirmed that the North Korean government had also cancelled North-South rice talks that were due to reconvene in Peking today. "This is an unforeseen incident. So it is hard to link it with inter-Korean relations in general," he said.

Rumours that North Korea was suffering serious food shortages were confirmed at the end of May when a Pyongyang trade official on a visit to Tokyo asked Japan to lend his country rice because of bad harvests. In the event, both Japan and South Korea offered rice aid, and shipments started in June. So far, Seoul has sent about half the 150,000 tons it promised, while Tokyo has sent 100,000 of a planned 300,000 tons.

Seoul was hoping that food aid might lead to a breakthrough in relations and there were expectations that the South might unveil a new initiative on 15 August, the 50th anniversary of Japan's defeat at the end of the Second World War. Japan's occupation of the Korean peninsula ended with its defeat by the allies.

Last night it was not clear how great a threat the ship's seizure posed to North-South dialogue. Mr Song said the Samsun Venus had unloaded 5,000 tons of rice at the port of Chongjin but since Sunday had been barred from leaving.

The crew of 21 had been detained on charges of spying, including the navigation officer, Lee Yang-Chon, who had allegedly taken photographs of the port and carried out "systematic spying activities and provocations". In a message to Seoul on Tuesday, Pyongyang said Mr Lee had confessed.

Mr Song denied that the crew had been spying, and demanded their return. He urged non-official contact before 15 August to sort out the incident, but said further rice shipments to the North would be suspended for the time being.

Relations between North and South Korea have suffered other setbacks in recent months. In May, North Korea seized a fishing boat with nine crewmen, and has refused to return it. In June, Seoul accused the North of kidnapping a South Korean missionary near the North's northern border with China; Pyongyang claimed he defected, and in July, the South detained thewidow of a South Korean dissident, Park Yong Gil, after she illegally visited the North.