There are more heads of state in New York this week than rats, thanks to the United Nations' Millennium Summit. President Clinton, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Ministers Gerhard Schroeder of Germany and Tony Blair of England are there, and even Fidel Castro, despite the protests of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is making an appearance at the U.N.'s crumbling Lower East Side digs. But after an embarrassing international incident in Frankfurt Monday, one important delegation won't be in attendance: the North Koreans.
After a scuffle with American Airlines employees in Germany, the North Korean delegation, despite the country's recent conciliatory gestures toward the West, reverted to Cold War rhetoric, rescinded its RSVP to the U.N. meeting and flew back to Pyongyang on Lufthansa.
American Airlines security employees at the Frankfurt airport subjected the North Koreans to special FAA security screenings designated for nationals of countries formerly known as "rogue states," but recently rechristened "states of concern" by Madeleine Albright's State Department. Depending on which account you believe, they were either gently patted down (according to American Airlines) or aggressively strip-searched, including "even the sensitive parts of the body," in the words of outraged Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon.
The trouble began when the delegation, led by designated head of state Kim Yong Nam, tried to board a connecting flight from Frankfurt to the U.S. on American. According to the airline, some members were patted down and asked to remove certain garments of clothing "such as a jacket" and their shoes. When others member of the delegation balked, they were not allowed to board the flight.
In a statement released to reporters Wednesday, American Airlines said that some delegates then decided to undergo the security measures, but were too late to board the flight before takeoff. They refused the alternative flight on German carrier Lufthansa that was offered, and instead went public, accusing the U.S. of trying to force them into "strip searches."
"U.S. air security officials ... opened suitcases and handbags of each member of the presidential entourage, forced them to take off clothes and shoes and thoroughly searched even the sensitive parts of the body," Choe Su Hon said at a news conference. "This incident cannot be construed otherwise than an intentional and premeditated plot made in advance according to the manuscript of the U.S. administration." In a statement, the Foreign Ministry also warned, "the United States will come to know what a dear price it will have to pay for having hurt our people's dignity."
A State Department insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, told an Associated Press reporter Tuesday that the Koreans had not informed the U.S. that they would be flying an American carrier from Frankfurt. Generally, diplomats who are accredited by the United Nations and the State Department are exempt from the more stringent security rules attached to passengers from countries on the United States' terrorism list, but the North Korea delegation was not. Stringent airport security provisions have been in place for North Koreans since the State Department designated the country a "state sponsor of terrorism" for its alleged responsibility in the bombing deaths of 115 aboard a South Korean jet in 1987. According to the State Department's global terrorism homepage, North Korea also provided refuge to members of the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction; which hijacked a North Korean-bound Japan Airlines jet in 1970; attempted to kidnap a North Korean diplomat who was trying to defect to Thailand in 1999; and stands accused of acting as a weapons shop for terrorist organizations. North Koreans aren't the only foreigners subjected to the pat-downs, bag searches and body searches imposed on the 15-member delegation by American Airlines. Other nations bearing the State Department's scarlet letter are Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria.
Nonetheless, American Airlines issued an apology: "We are sorry for the inconvenience caused Monday to the North Korean diplomatic delegation." The airline also reiterated in its statement that it was bound by FAA security policies: "As a U.S. carrier we are obliged under Federal Aviation Administration regulations to carry out stringent security procedures for all passengers traveling on our international flights."
The North Korea contretemps raised questions about whether other summit attendees were submitted to embarrassing security searches. Calls to American Airlines' spokesperson seeking answers to additional questions remained unanswered at press time.
When asked to comment on the security procedures, Rebecca Trexler, spokeswoman for the FAA, said, "I can't. We can say that they're enhanced security procedures, but I can't describe publicly what they are because that would be telling the bad guys what to do. My understanding is that they weren't strip-searched, they were subjected to pat-downs, and I think they asked them to take off their jackets and shoes. They [the American Airlines employees] were in compliance with FAA regulations."
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart stopped short of an apology for the incident, but did state, "We regret that they got on a plane and headed back home."
The northernmost Koreans had been oozing goodwill in recent weeks, making subtle and overt humanitarian and diplomatic gestures toward South Korea. The Pyongyang government, for example, permitted several dozen aging Communists to see their 90-year-old mothers in South Korea last month, and has allowed other North-South family visits.
The strip-search flap left many wondering how it would affect the end of the ice age between the two Koreas. South Korea's president Kim told the AP he didn't expect it to stop "the trend of a thaw between the North and South."