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S.Korea: Number of Defectors from North Continues to Rise - 2003-12-18

South Korea says the number of defectors from North Korea has gone up and is likely to continue rising. The government in Seoul is making plans for a possible huge influx of refugees from the North.

The Unification Ministry of South Korea on Thursday said the number of defectors from January to November this year topped 1,100 - a 10 percent increase over the same period last year. In 2001, fewer than 600 refugees made the trip.

The border between the two Koreas has been sealed for 50 years, and most of the defectors come by way of China, which also shares a border with the communist North. Many of the defectors have said they are fleeing a totalitarian state where conditions are harsh and food is scarce.

South Korea's Unification Ministry says the number of defectors is likely to increase. It says it believes thousands are hiding in China and other countries waiting for a chance to get to South Korea. Aid agencies have estimated that up to 300,000 North Koreans may have fled to China in the past few years to escape famine and repression.

A North Korea expert at Japan's Kansai University, Lee Young-Hwa, says he is disappointed so few are actually getting into South Korea. Mr. Lee, who also is representative of a support group for North Korean refugees, says he believes Seoul is limiting the number of people from the North it will accept, so as to not provoke the government of dictator Kim Jong Il.

The South's military in October said it had set up facilities near the border with the North to take in refugees if instability were to send large numbers of North Koreans fleeing southward.

Some refugee groups have suggested that many North Koreans could flee to the Russian Far East. The area suffers a labor shortage and earlier this month the governor of Russia's Primorye border region said he would welcome up to two hundred thousand North Koreans.

Korea has been divided into north and south since 1945. The two countries fought a devastating war in the early 1950s and no peace treaty has ever been signed.