The largest single group of defectors from North Korea, 230 people, arrived in South Korea Tuesday by jumbo jet from Vietnam - and Wednesday another 220 are expected to make the same journey, according to sources in Seoul.
The flights to safety for the 450 refugees are regarded as a breakthrough by activists and human rights sources in Asia, though it does not necessarily auger any kind of mass migration from a society as controlled as the North, or from China where many now live hide-and-seek lives. Moreover, South Korea's official acceptance of their kinfolk appeared to be agreed upon only after the numbers of refugees in Vietnam rose too high to ignore.
Still, the level of organization needed to gather so many refugees was a surprise to analysts, and the working out of a deal between Seoul and Hanoi may represent a new channel of release for an outcast group that usually makes it to South Korea in groups of two to 10 people. On the Korean Peninsula, news of such a highly public event is expected to penetrate into the North via the increased number of whispering campaigns and indirect channels of communication, experts say.
In Vietnam, the North Koreans had been living in tent cities for between 45 and 180 days. Most of them escaped from across the Yalu River that divides Korea and China, and most received furtive assistance inside China by a variety of activists, private groups, and hired "brokers" who took them across mountains and borders to Southeast Asia, sources say. [Editor's note: In the original version, Yalu River was incorrectly spelled.]
"I'm thrilled. This is what we've been hoping for," says activist Tim Peters of the group "Helping Hands" in Seoul. "About 400 people with no light at the end of their tunnel have suddenly been given a new life."
Still, the two flights do not represent a change of heart or policy in South Korea, whose government has often been criticized as indifferent to the plight of refugees inside a bordering military dictatorship that has an active system of gulags and prisons.
Rather, the flights appeared to have been arranged after the number of North Korean refugees in Southeast Asian states accumulated so quickly that Seoul officials were told to either accept them or stand by as the refugees were returned to China.
The numbers of North Koreans reaching the South is on the rise in recent years, with 1,285 arriving in 2003 and 760 in the first half of 2004.
To date, the government of China does not give North Korean escapees the status of "refugees" despite manifest testimony of abuse in that country. North Koreans captured in China have been handed back over to police or border guards in their home country, where punishment or retribution towards escapees is often severe.
"The number of defectors reached the point where there was no choice," says Paik Jin-hyun of Seoul National University. "The South Korean government can't turn them down any longer, but is forced into accepting them. It is time for the [Roh Moo-hyun administration] to form a more proactive policy."
At least 100 more refugees from the regime of Kim Jong Il are still in Vietnam, say activists involved in their release. One prominent activist suggests that the number of North Korean refugees in Southeast Asia is 700 to 1,000, and the figure is about 2,000 if refugees in Russia are counted.
The plight of an estimated 200,000 refugees from the North living in China was given international media coverage two years ago when several refugee families made a daring series of rushes into foreign embassies in Beijing, while TV cameras rolled.
The conditions faced by ordinary North Koreans, who live in a state organized like a cult around the personality of General Kim, has been given recent attention by the likes of former Czech president Vaclav Havel, who points to hundreds of thousands of prisoners "barely surviving day to day," in political penal labor camps known as kwan li so. US satellite photos indicate that some of the prison labor camps are as large as metropolitan Washington, DC.
South Korean officials have taken a cautious attitude toward the planeload of fellow Koreans. "We are going to be very cautious.... We are not encouraging more defections from the North," says National Security Advisor Ben Limb.
According to Kim Bum-soo, a director of the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees in Seoul, the negotiations by the South Korean government were "serious and sincere." He noted that during the talks Seoul paid for food, shelter, and humanitarian assistance for refugees, who lived in tents that accommodated about 70 refugees each.
Under the South Korean constitution, North Koreans are considered citizens of Korea, and are thus protected by laws and rights in the South and are theoretically to be welcomed. Moreover, North Koreans are to be regarded as brothers and sisters rather than enemies under the popular "sunshine policy" of the year 2000 which sought reconciliation between the two Koreas, and is supported strongly by current president Roh.
Yet under the sunshine policy South Korea is not supposed to go public with information or images that could be embarrassing or critical of the North - in recent years the growing numbers of North Korean refugees coming to Seoul has been downplayed.
Also, despite the oft-shown scenes of tearful family reunions taking place across the Korean border as a result of the sunshine policy, there is also a very well documented popular dislike in South Korea of North Korean refugees, who are often bluntly and unfairly accused of salacious acts, petty crimes, taking jobs, or being lazy and freeloading.