SOUTH Korea is bracing for a large influx of refugees from the North following a recent rise in defections of North Korean elite which Seoul officials say could signal the crumbling of the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang.
The frequency of North Koreans defecting has jumped in the past two years and the newcomers are peppered with high-level officials, a new development in the cold-war standoff on this divided peninsula.
Before 1993, when fewer than 10 defectors came per year, the South Korean government paraded them to the press with great fanfare. These days, new arrivals don't make big news. In 1994 there were about 40, and in 1995 nearly 50 came, according to the Freedom Center, a government think tank here. This year, there have already been 10 arrivals.
Though the flight of North Koreans working in Siberia doesn't get the attention it once did, defectors have been on the front pages as often as before because more are coming from the North Korean elite. In October, a senior military officer working for a weapons-trading company in China defected. In December, it was a foreign-exchange trader working in London. In mid-January, a diplomat, his wife, and a "martial-arts attache" from the North Korean Embassy in Zambia showed up.
A recent press conference with three defectors - a former diplomat, an Army captain, and an economics lecturer at Kim Il Sung University - helped explain why there are more high-level defectors now. One reason is that the North has greater access to outside information. North Koreans also feel their ideals were betrayed after the Soviet Union collapsed and China began changing its Communist system. The food shortage in the North, the shrinking economy, and a change of leadership have brought uncertainty about the future of the regime.
Given the instability, many in the elite may be sending their children abroad, a South Korean official said at the time the Zambian-based diplomat, son of a ranking Communist Party leader, defected.
If the ruling class is starting to bolt, when will the ordinary people follow? And what will South Korea do when it happens? An estimated 1,200 North Koreans are now in China, Russia, Vietnam, and other third countries hoping to enter the South. While some can blend into ethnic Korean communities there, or marry locals, it's a risky life. North Korean agents hunt runaways and China deports North Koreans, who can face public execution back home.
As these numbers could swell, the South is compelled to have a contingency plan. But that doesn't mean it likes to talk about it.
According to a report cited by Breen and Gustaveson, a Seoul-based consultancy, South Korea is in secret talks with Beijing about building reception camps just over the border in China, where the rush is expected.
At a seminar last Tuesday, the secretary-general of the South Korean National Red Cross said 270 schools north of Seoul also could be turned into temporary refuge camps.
If South Korea appears to be inviting a mass influx by announcing that it is prepared for one, or lets in the 1,200 refugees waiting in third countries, it could anger North Korea, making it more intractable in negotiations, say North Korea watchers.
Reunifying Korea was a vague and distant concept here before the Berlin Wall came down - something everyone wanted, like world peace.
Cost projections made when the cold war ended cooled the idea in South Korea, which now hopes to raise the economic level of the North before reunification. Another problem South Korea will have is assimilating its noncapitalist brethren. Last week, a defector, hoping to return to the North out of loneliness, was caught stowed away on a China-bound freighter. A few days later, a Sogang University study was released showing 68 percent of defectors suffer "mental and psychological problems" living in the south. In response, the South Korean government announced Friday it would plan vocational- training and job-placement program for defectors.
Government support for defectors has been dropping. Defectors receive just under $20,000 for resettlement. That is less than half what they received several years ago.
Of the 561 defectors now in South Korea, 253 are unemployed or work at physical labor, according to the Institute for Peace Affairs.