Worried that a growing number of North Koreans crossing the Yalu and Tumen rivers into China will soon seek refuge in the South, South Korea has passed controversial new measures intended to slow the flow of asylum seekers.
The regulations, which take effect next month, tighten defector screening processes and slash the amount of money given to each refugee from $28,000 to $10,000. South Korean officials say the new rules are intended to prevent ethnic Koreans living in China from entering the South, as well as stop North Koreans with criminal records from gaining entry.
But human rights activists say the measures will unfairly hamper the efforts of North Korean defectors escaping the North, and are the result of South Korea yielding to Chinese and North Korean demands as part of a broader policy of reconciliation.
"These days [North Korean defectors who are returned] get jail terms of up to 17 years," says Lim Young Sun, who fled North Korea 11 years ago and now works for an organization that protests rights abuses in the North. "They live a maximum of two years."
Moon Kuk Han, head of an office dedicated to aiding North Korean refugees, calls the government's new screening policy is absurd. "It's like burning the whole house down to catch one flea."
The changes will certainly make it more challenging for North Korean defectors in China to gain asylum in the South. It's estimated that as many as 300,000 North Koreans currently live in China, where authorities remain adamant in their policy of "repatriating" to North Korea those whom it catches. Once returned, activists say, defectors face torture and death in prison.
This year more than 1,800 North Koreans have made it to the South - the largest annual number since the Korean War. The total number who have made it to the South has reached approximately 6,000.
"People are scared of North Koreans," says Kim Hye Suu, a graduate student at Yonsei University. "People don't want to mix with them," she says, reflecting both regional and social prejudices and the widespread sense here that North Koreans refugees are a distant problem.
Those working on behalf of North Korean refugees say that the new regulations are also harmful to the refugees' plight because they punish South Koreans who go to China as refugee brokers, sometimes charging as much as $10,000 to help defectors get to the South either with the aid of South Korean diplomats or by getting into the embassy of another country and begging for asylum.
"We want to get rid of the brokers who charge high fees," says Oh Kyung Sup, with an group called the Network for North Korean Democracy, but "if you want to get rid of all the brokers, very few North Koreans could come to South Korea."
More than 80 percent of North Koreans in South Korea, he notes, "came with the help of brokers." It's getting much harder for refugees to pay broker fees since the government has cut the amount of money defectors receive to settle into life in the South, he adds.
Many rights groups charge South Korea agreed to tighten the regulations only under severe pressure both from China and North Korea, with which the South has been pressing for reconciliation - a policy started seven years ago after Kim Dae Jung was elected president that continues under his successor, Roh Moo Hyun.
Ko Gyoung Bin, director-general of the Unification Ministry's Bureau of Social and Cultural Exchanges, does not deny the need to appease China, whose support is seen as critical in persuading North Korea to return to negotiations on its nuclear weapons program.
"Our hands are tied," says Mr. Ko, citing the need for Chinese permission for North Koreans holed up in foreign embassies and consulates in China to leave for foreign countries. "Without Chinese cooperation, not one North Korean can come into South Korea," he says. "Cooperation with the Chinese government is the key" - even though, he acknowledges, "they treat all North Koreans in China as illegal aliens."
The number of North Koreans in China may be mounting as the North endures a typically harsh winter amid recurrent reports that Kim Jong Il - if his power is not exactly threatened - is having trouble coping with increasingly restive military leaders and civilian bureaucrats.