The U.S. ambassador to South Korea said today that a group of American human rights activists accompanying dissident leader Kim Dae Jung home from exile may have deliberately provoked a scuffle with police at Seoul's airport on Friday.
Meanwhile, police at his house refused to allow Kim, a Roman Catholic, to leave to attend church today, and they later barred a priest and a Protestant minister from entering the house to hold a prayer service.
Ambassador Richard L. Walker said that a group representative who came to Seoul early to make preparations had told the embassy that the group had agreed that Kim would be separated from it on reaching the airport.
But after they got off the plane, members linked arms with Kim and refused to leave him, Walker said.
Their actions appeared to be "purposeful provocation," Walker said, and set the stage for police to use force to separate them.
In an interview today, Walker nevertheless condemned the South Korean government for using force, which he said broke an agreement with the embassy that Kim's homecoming would be trouble-free.
In addition, he said, the Seoul government failed to live up to promises to have a Foreign Ministry official on Kim's flight explain procedures at the airport and to allow three U.S. diplomats to be present when the group disembarked.
"Both sides must share the blame," Walker said.
Members of the delegation today rejected Walker's claim and repeated statements that State Department officials told them before their arrival that the Seoul government had agreed to let delegation members remain with Kim until they reached his house.
The delegation called on the White House to "give serious consideration" to postponing a planned visit to Washington by South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan in April.
In Washington, a White House spokesman said, "There are no plans to change the visit," Reuter reported.
Walker's statement added fuel to a dispute over facts and culpability for the fracas at Kimpo International Airport that erupted at about noon Friday.
Delegation members repeatedly have hammered at Walker, a Reagan appointee, for allegedly failing to protect their rights properly and to seek redress from the Seoul government.
With an entourage of 36 foreigners, most of them Americans, Kim and his wife arrived in Seoul on Friday after two years of exile in the United States. Kim had been sentenced to death in 1980 on sedition charges, after Chun seized power. The death sentence later was reduced to a 20-year prison term, and Kim was allowed to go to the United States for medical treatment.
The group accompanying him included Reps. Edward F. Feighan (D-Ohio) and Thomas M. Foglietta (D-Pa.); Patricia Derian, a former assistant secretary of state for human rights; and Robert E. White, a former ambassador to El Salvador. They said their purpose was to draw world attention to Kim and thereby help ensure his safety.
Delegation members have alleged that they and Kim were brutally assaulted by police when they left the plane and that Kim was taken away forcibly.
South Korea has denied that any brutality occurred but said that police may have pushed people to separate the Americans from Kim. The separation was necessary to ensure his security, a government spokesman said.
Walker said South Korea had told embassy officials before the arrival that Kim and his wife must be taken separately to their home in a government vehicle.
The government offered to give three delegation members VIP treatment, whisk them through airport formalities and take them directly to his house, according to Walker. "But not with Kim Dae Jung -- they were adamant about that," he said.
Walker said that this was conveyed by embassy officials to Linda Lewis, a Korean-speaking delegation member who arrived in Seoul four days before the main party to make preparations.
According to Walker, after the group arrived in Tokyo on Thursday night en route to Seoul, Lewis told embassy officials that she had spoken by phone to a group member there and was told the group agreed to the conditions. The embassy then told the South Korean government, Walker said.
But Walker said the embassy had learned that "a decision was made aboard the airplane to renege on that agreement and that they would lock arms and stay together."
Lewis gave a different account today, saying embassy officials had told her they thought, but could not be certain, that the government would let five Americans accompany Kim home from the airport.
After talking to the delegation in Tokyo, she said, she responded positively to the embassy.
Feighan also rejected Walker's version of events. "I am cochairman of the delegation, and I never agreed to that," he said.
Walker said he believed that if the embassy officials had been present, as the Seoul government had promised, the use of force could have been averted.
Tonight, delegation members had dinner with Kim at his house, where he is confined by police.