Number of N. Koreans defecting to S. Korea increases nearly 60 percent

Byun Duk-kun

The number of North Korean defectors coming to South Korea increased by nearly 60 percent in the first seven months of this year compared to the same period of last year, the Unification Ministry said Wednesday.

A total of 1,054 North Koreans have come to the country as of the end of July, up 59 percent from a year ago, the ministry said in a report. Apparently hundreds more are waiting to find their way here, it said.

Earlier reports said a group of 175 North Koreans were rounded up by Thai police on suspicion of illegal immigration Tuesday, only hours before they were to board a passenger jet flying to South Korea.

The chief of the Thai police’s immigration bureau, Lt. Gen. Suwat Tumrongsiskul, was quoted as saying the North Koreans would be prosecuted, but would be detained “on a humanitarian basis” until they leave the country since they are seeking refuge in third countries.

The number of North Koreans coming to the South has steadily increased since the late 1990s with more than 100 finding their way here in 1999 for the first time since the end of 1950-53 Korean War.

The number increased to 1,139, breaking the 1,000 mark for the first time, in 2002, and rose to 1,281 in 2003 and 1,894 a year later.

International relief agencies, however, believe as many as 100,000 North Koreans may still be hiding in other countries, mostly in China, while civic organizations working to help the North Koreans put the number at 300,000 in China alone.

With no relatives or jobs in China, most of the North Korean defectors live in extreme destitution, usually making a living by begging. The Chinese government refuses to recognize them as refugees and regularly rounds them up and sends them back to their communist homeland where they are reportedly tortured, prosecuted and often executed.

The South Korean government says it will accept any North Koreans coming to the country, but cannot encourage or support their defection because of its relations with the North, as well as with other countries, which are used as stopovers for North Korean defectors.

Beijing is bound by a written agreement with Pyongyang to repatriate any North Koreans in its custody, according to government officials.

North and South Korea remain divided along a heavily-fortified border since the fratricidal Korean War (1950-53).

Defection through the inter-Korean border is not unprecedented, but is nearly impossible with nearly 70 percent of some 1.8 million troops on both sides standing guard within a radius of a few kilometers from the border.

Relations between the divided Koreas significantly warmed up following a historic meeting of their leaders in the North Korean capital in 2000.

The two, however, still remain technically in a state of war as the Korean War ended with an armistice agreement, not a peace treaty.


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