U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - North Korea

  The famine in North Korea reached crisis proportions in 1997. Before it eased late in the year after a substantial increase in international food aid, the famine caused some North Koreans to make the dangerous trek across the border with China. Some refugee agencies speculated that refugees fleeing the closely guarded communist state could have been among those fleeing the famine. Crossing into China from North Korea without permission is a crime in both countries, but neither country releases information on the number of persons apprehended and forcibly returned. Although China is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, it also has a treaty with North Korea that says it will return "defectors." Chinese authorities returned many of the Koreans who entered China to almost certain harsh punishment in North Korea. Most North Korean asylum seekers in China were not high-ranking officials, and the majority crossed into China either by swimming or walking over the rugged mountains. In April the flow of migrants was so great that the South Korean consulates in Beijing and Hong Kong were swamped with requests for asylum. However, fears that some of the North Koreans could be spies reportedly slowed the process of admitting them to South Korea. Some North Koreans, however, took a more direct route to the south. In May, the South Korean navy intercepted a vessel carrying 14 North Korean asylum seekers; the boat was spotted off the Korean peninsula near the demilitarized zone between the two countries. In December, the Asia Intelligence Wire reported that there had been "65 North Korean defectors to the South" during the year. South Korea made plans for a larger influx, despite its security fears. Late in the year, it reportedly secured a site for a settlement center for North Koreans, to be ready in 1998.

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