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More North Koreans join biggest mass defection to South Korea

Thursday, July 29, 2004

SEOUL, South Korea -- The second wave in the biggest mass defection of North Koreans to South Korea arrived Wednesday on a flight from an unidentified Southeast Asian country, bringing the total in the two-day airlift to nearly 460.

The group of 227 North Koreans arrived at Incheon International Airport on a chartered Korean Air plane arranged by the South Korean government, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said.

South Korean government officials have been reluctant to confirm the arrival of the North Koreans and have declined to reveal which country they are coming from, but news reports said that 230 arrived Tuesday.

A trickle of defectors to the South has grown into a steady stream in recent years as more North Koreans flee hunger and repression in their communist country, mostly fleeing across its long border with China before heading to other countries.

Human rights groups have said that hundreds of North Koreans were living in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries, and were eager to travel to South Korea.

The government has barred reporters from covering the arrival of the defectors. But television footage captured from afar Tuesday showed the first group arriving and then being swiftly taken away in five buses.

The government typically puts defectors through a month of questioning before giving them a two-month orientation course on how to make their way in their new capitalist home.

Analysts cautioned against interpreting the arrivals as heralding further mass defections from the communist state.

Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert in Seoul, said North Korea probably would try to crack down harder on its citizens seeking to defect.

Over 5,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War. Last year, the number of defectors arriving in the South reached 1,285, up from 1,140 in 2002 and 583 in 2001.

South Korea's Unification Minister Chung Dong-young said Tuesday the number of defectors was expected to reach 10,000 within "a couple of years."

"It is necessary to review and upgrade the general policy," toward the defectors, Chung said. "Until now, it was more at the level of helping a small group of North Korean defectors settling down."

North Korea has depended on outside help to feed its 22 million people since 1995.

The Koreas were divided in 1945. Their border remains sealed and heavily guarded by nearly 2 million troops on both sides following the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.


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