SEOUL — ; Some 400 North Koreans will arrive in South Korea next week from temporary asylum in a Southeast Asian country, the largest-ever group of North Koreans to seek asylum across the heavily fortified border.
South Korea's Unification Ministry declined to give the date of their arrival for security reasons. The name of the Asian country where the North Koreans are being held is also being kept secret, at the request of that country.
"The main thing is that they arrive safely," spokesman Yang Jeong-Hwa said.
More and more North Koreans have been fleeing that tightly-closed nation in the last decade, mostly through neighboring China. Human Rights Watch has estimated that up to 300,000 North Koreans may be hiding in China, which routinely repatriates North Korean refugees whom it finds.
Beijing, a close ally of Pyongyang, refuses to grant North Korean defectors refugee status and considers them illegal economic migrants.
"North Korean defectors have entered Southeast Asian countries in large numbers since last year, but their coming to Seoul has been delayed because the resettlement facilities here couldn't accommodate them all," Reverend Chun Ki-won, a leading advocate for North Korean refugees, told RFA's Korean service.
"A major reason why this country has agreed to to send the North Koreans to Seoul is because the number of refugees in that country has reached a point where they cannot effectively control them," he said.
About 5,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953. The number has risen significantly in recent years, with 1,285 defecting in 2003, up from 1,140 in 2002, and 583 in 2001.
By June this year, South Korea had received 760, putting them into two-month resettlement programs at a government-run halfway house before embarking on ordinary life.
Wary that it could attract a massive influx, Seoul recently announced that it would reduce the grants given to North Korean refugees from 36 million won (U.S. $30,900) to help them resettle and 540,000 won monthly afterward. North Koreans will now receive 20 million won to resettle and 320,000 won monthly.
The halfway house Hanawon recently marked its fifth anniversary and was refurbished to accommodate the rising number of arrivals. The expanded facility in two locations south of Seoul can feed, house, and train 400 people at one time.
With earlier refugees yet to complete the Hanawon program, some of next week's new arrivals will have to be put up elsewhere, an official said.
The Education Ministry said this week it would open a school in 2006 to pay special attention to the academic, emotional and other transitional needs of young North Korean refugees.