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21 N. Koreans Seek Asylum in South - 2002-08-19

Twenty-one North Koreans are now at a safe house in South Korea after a dramatic asylum bid. They are the first group of boat people to come directly from North Korea in five years.

South Korean authorities found the 11 adults and 10 children on a fishing boat in South Korean waters on Sunday and on Monday escorted them to the South Korean port of Incheon. They will remain at a government safe house while their freedom bids are confirmed.

The group comprising members of three families, left the North early Saturday from a small fishing village near the Chinese border. They told maritime police officers that they want asylum in the South and are escaping from hunger.

So far this year, more than 500 North Koreans have fled famine and political oppression in their communist homeland.

About 60 have sought refuge in foreign embassies in China. Beijing has allowed many of them to leave for the South despite a repatriation agreement with North Korea.

Pastor Doug Shin, based in Seoul, works closely with North Korean refugees. He expects more defections by boat in the near future.

"We are continuing to see a lot of North Korean refugees arrivals in northeastern China," he said. "Since Beijing is cracking down on them and blocking the embassy entrances by barbed wiring, etc., we have to now take the ocean route."

He also says that plans are in the works to charter boats to South Korea from China, where aid agencies say up to 300,000 North Korean refugees are now hiding.

"The refugee movement has never ending fire because principally speaking, the more repression they go through, the higher they bounce back," he said. "And it looks like for every North Korean that is repatriated back in North Korea, there are anywhere between two to 20 new ones coming with them (in new asylum bids)."

The group which arrived Monday is the first to defect directly from North to South Korea by sea in five years.

Land crossings are almost impossible, because of the demilitarized zone, which has separated the two rival nations since the Korean War ended in 1953 without a peace treaty.

The latest asylum bid could create tensions between the foes. After months of difficult relations, the two nations held three days of cabinet-level talks last week and decided to restart several reconciliation projects.