Rising tide of N. Korean defectors worries Seoul

Special to World
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

More than 200 North Koreans defectors move into buses after arriving at Seongnam military airport in South Korea behind a wall of secrecy as the government played down the biggest influx yet of defectors from the Stalinist state.
SEOUL The announcement that a total of 400 North Korean defectors now staying in a Southeast Asian country are coming to South Korea this week is raising social and political concerns.

The number of North Korean defectors to South Korea has increased from only 60 in 1999 to 297 in 2000, and to 572 in 2001 and more than 1,000 in 2003. During the first half of this year, the number reached 760 and is steadily increasing. More than 5,100 North Korean refugees have found home in the South so far. And there are no reliable estimates of how many more will arrive in the next few years.

While politicians and nongovernmental organization (NGO) groups welcome the triumph of the government's quiet diplomacy to repatriate North Korean defectors to Seoul en mass, they fear that this will lead to many problems, including the lack of facilities to house them and personnel to educate them.

Another concern, rarely voiced in the increasingly pro-North Korean South, is that there may be infiltrators among the genuine defectors or that their status as second class citizens could in the future be exploited by the North as the two sides proceed toward unification.

The South Korean government has repeatedly assured the nation that it would take in all North Korean defectors willing to come to South Korea. But the facilities have proven inadequate to accommodate ate those that have come in.

Hanawon, the housing and educational facility, had the capacity for only 400 even after an expansion this year. Consequently the original education curriculum is being reduced from six months to two months, which is said to be far from adequate to educate the North Koreans from socialism to capitalism. Moreover, the government settlement subsidy of 36 million Won will be reduced to 20 million Won, not enough to rent a house.

South Korean society is not united about assisting the defectors, and contributions from the civilian sector are still limited. The slow recovery of the South's economy is an added burden.

Then again, there is the danger of diplomatic friction with China and discontent from Pyongyang over the defector issue. More than 100,000 North Korean defectors are are believed to be scattered and in hiding in China, fearing arrest and deportation to North Korea. In recent years, as China stepped up its efforts to apprehend defectors, South Korean NGOs have been helping them find their ways to such neighboring countries as Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Burma.

According to an NGO member helping North Korean defectors, the 400 defectors are coming not from one Southeast Asian country, but two. "We have been helping them with shelter and food, but as the number increased, it put the countries into a difficult position," he said. That provided a common ground for working out a solution with South Korean government, according to the NGO volunteer worker.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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