More Refugees Flee Famine-Strapped North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea said its navy intercepted a vessel carrying 14 North Korean asylum seekers Monday -- one of the largest groups ever to flee the hunger-stricken communist nation.

Meanwhile, a UN aid official reported that famine was ticking like a time bomb in the country and could explode at any time.

The South Korean Defense Ministry said the boat was spotted off the west coast of the Korean peninsula near a military demarcation line that has split the two Koreas since their 1950 to 1953 war.

It probably sailed straight from the North and was being escorted to the western port of Inchon, where it was due at around midnight, a ministry spokesman said.

On board were two families, one with eight people and the other with six.

It was one of the biggest defections ever from communist North Korea.

The largest was a group of 17 -- including 16 members of a single family -- that arrived in the South last December after a six-week long epic escape through China and into Hong Kong.

Last month, North Korea's former top ideologue, Hwang Jang-yop, arrived in Seoul after an escape that took him through Beijing and the Philippines.

In Beijing, a United Nations World Food Program, or WFP, official said hungry people in North Korea were eating bark, leaves and mushrooms to stay alive.

"The situation is ... a famine in slow motion," Tun Myat, director of the transport and logistics division of the WFP, said at a news conference. "It's ticking away like a time bomb."

Babies and children are in various stages of malnutrition and hospitals lack equipment and patients because people could not afford to send sick relatives for treatment.

"They ate bark and leaves," Myat said, referring to people he saw during a two-week visit. "Stalks of corn, cobs of corn, empty pea and bean pods, mushroom stems and whatever that in most other countries would either have been thrown away or would have at best been used for animal feed are now being milled into powder."

The WFP estimates North Korea needs an additional 1.3 million tons of food in 1997. It has appealed for 200,000 tons worth $96 million but has received only $38 million of that to date.

Separately, the South Korean Red Cross said it planned to begin shipping 15,000 tons of corn to North Korea next week to help stave off famine.

Lee Byung-woong said his organization also planned to give its North Korean counterpart an estimate of how much other food aid was planned.

That issue had created a deadlock in inter-Korean Red Cross talks in Beijing aimed at speeding up aid shipments. The talks, held earlier this month, were the first contact between the two Korean organizations in nearly five years.

In another development, a Pyongyang defector living in Seoul reported that North Korean authorities foiled a plot by cadets at a military academy to assassinate top leader Kim Jong-il in 1995.

The cadets planned to axe Kim to death during a martial arts display, the defector wrote in an article published by South Korea's Nae-woe Press, which monitors North Korea. But the plot was uncovered and the ringleaders were executed, the article said.