Pyongyang May Accept Defection

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea indicated Monday that it can accept the defection of Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking official to flee from the communist state to seek asylum in South Korea.

The apparent softening of the North's position could ease the way for Hwang to leave the South Korean consulate in Beijing, where he has been holed up since asking for asylum there last Wednesday.

"If he was kidnapped, we cannot tolerate and we will take decisive countermeasures," said an unnamed spokesman of the North's Foreign Ministry, quoted by the nation's official news agency. "If he sought asylum, it means that he is a renegade and he is dismissed."

South Korean officials took the comment as indicating that North Korea was abandoning its position that Hwang's defection was "inconceivable and impossible."

Right after Hwang's defection last Wednesday, North Korea had accused South Korea of kidnapping Hwang and threatened to retaliate. Hwang, 73, a key communist theoretician, once was the private tutor of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Monday's "comment seems to imply that North Korea will accept it if independent parties, like the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, rule that Hwang is a political defector," said Kang Ho-yang, spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry.

His comment was the first sign of a possible breakthrough in the tense standoff surrounding South Korea's consulate in Beijing, where North Koreans had been keeping a vigil.

Even before the latest North Korean statement, South Korea had said Monday it would provide the North with humanitarian aid and new nuclear reactors despite tension from a suspected North Korean terrorist attack on another North Korean defector.

Lee Han-young, 36, a nephew of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's former wife, Sung Hae-rim, was shot and critically wounded Saturday.