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Hundreds of North Korean Refugees Expected in S. Korea - 2004-07-23

More than 400 North Korean refugees are expected to arrive in South Korea next week. Officials at Seoul's Unification Ministry say the North Koreans traveled from their impoverished homeland to China, and from there to an unnamed Asian country.

It will be the largest refugee resettlement from the North since the height of the Korean War in the early 1950's.

South Korean media reports that Seoul has been trying to secure the transfer of the refugees since late May.

Human rights activists in South Korea say the move is a significant departure from Seoul's usual low-key and incremental approach to refugee admissions. "This is a landmark decision, no question about it," said Tim Peters, the director of Helping Hands Korea, a refugee assistance program in Seoul. "Up until now, in any given year, 1,800 is the largest number ever to be received in a 12-month period."

Fewer than 5,000 North Korean refugees have resettled in the South since the 1950's. More than half of them have arrived in the past three years, as more and more refugees stream out of the North, desperate to secure food.

"The sheer lack of daily food forces some people to take extraordinary risks, and many people are willing to risk everything to have a little light at the end of their own personal tunnel," he explained.

Widespread famine in North Korea during the late 1990's claimed an estimated one million lives. Now, activists say, there are nearly 300,000 North Koreans refugees in neighboring countries.

If they are caught in China, they are forcibly returned to North Korea, where many are imprisoned and, in some cases, executed. Those who do make it to South Korea receive a government stipend, free schooling and affordable housing. Nevertheless, the transition is a difficult one, and many young refugees drop out of school and complain of social isolation.