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North Korea complains of rude treatment, cancels trip to U.N. Millennium Summit
FRANKFURT, Germany -- North Korea abruptly called off its trip to the U.N. Millennium Summit in New York and flew to Beijing after claiming its delegation suffered "rude and provocative" treatment by "U.S. air security officials" in Frankfurt on Monday.
North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon told a news conference Tuesday that "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."
The search occurred while the entourage was transferring to an American Airlines flight in Frankfurt.
The delegation was led by Kim Yong Nam, chairman of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, the country's designated head of state for the Millennium Summit. There had been hopes that he would meet South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung in New York to follow up on a June summit between the two Koreas.
"This incident cannot be construed otherwise than an intentional and premeditated plot made in advance according to the manuscript of the U.S. administration," Choe said.
Li Hyong Choi, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, told a news conference at the United Nations that "the U.S. aviation officials showed up and provoked the delegation by labeling DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) as a rogue state.
"They intentionally created difficulties saying that could allow the delegation members to go aboard only after searching all their baggages and questioning every member of the delegation, including the president."
Pyongyang officials also accused the United States of being "double-faced" after U.S. President Bill Clinton invited them into the country.
"The U.S. side should make an official apology for its act committed against the president," it said.
U.S. disputes claim of strip searching
The White House said it regretted North Korea's decision to withdraw its delegation.
White House press secretary Joe Lockhart disputed North Korean assertions that American Airlines employees strip-searched them as they waited to board their flight. Lockhart also said the White House believes the airline followed normal security precautions.
"It was a combination of unfamiliarity with our procedures and ... some unfamiliarity on the part there with the delegation coming through," Lockhart said. "The airlines, for their part, were ... following procedures. There was no strip searching. There was a general search of -- patting down and looking through bags."
Airline defends action
American Airlines issued a statement Tuesday regarding the way the delegation was handled, saying it was sorry the group was inconvenienced, but its staff was "obliged under Federal Aviation Administration regulations to carry out stringent security procedures ...
"Each member of the group also had to be searched. This involved a 'pat down' and removal of only an outer garment, such as a suit jacket, and their shoes. Some of the group declined to take part in the screening process," the airline said.
"When they later changed their minds and agreed to the screening, it was 10 minutes prior to the flight's scheduled departure time and there was not enough time to process the whole delegation."
The airline told the White House the North Korean delegation arrived at the departure gate just before the plane was to depart for New York. A standard search was undertaken and the plane left before it was finished. The airline told the White House it then gave the North Korean delegation tickets on another of the airline's flights to New York as compensation for missing the first flight.
Airline representatives said they assumed the delegation had boarded the other flight and were dumbstruck by the allegations of abuse that swiftly grew into an international diplomatic flap, Lockhart said.
"It's certainly an unfortunate incident that we regret," Lockhart said. "We were looking forward to their participation at the Millennium Summit."
A North Korean spokesman in Berlin said the delegation boarded a flight to Beijing right after the news conference.
There was no immediate reaction from the United Nations. "Everyone is scrambling to find out what has happened," said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard.
Act 'intensifies our hatred'
Choe said there could obviously be no meeting with South Korean officials in New York, but North Korea did not blame its neighbor for the incident. He stressed that talks had been going well.
"I think there will be a chance for a meeting (in the future). The chance is lost this time," he told reporters, referring to the dialogue between the two Koreas which began in June after almost 50 years of hostility.
Li, the North Korean ambassador, said the "incident intensified our vigilance and hatred towards the United States."
Blaming the U.S. government, Choe said such acts "are only possible by hooligans who have no regard at all to international law and practices."
CNN White House Correspondent Major Garrett and Reuters contributed to this report.
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