The famine in North Korea continued during 1998, with sources estimating that 2 million North Koreansnearly ten percent of the populationhad died from hunger or disease since 1995. Video footage brought back by a U.S. congressional staff delegation in August showed emaciated children and other evidence of a country where many people eat weeds, grass, and corn stalks to survive.
The crisis led an unknown number of North Koreans to make the dangerous trek across the border with China. The U.S. Institute for Peace estimated that at least 100,000 North Koreans had fled to China in search of food in the past four years.
Some refugee agencies speculated that persons fleeing persecution were 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.
An uncertain number of North Koreans escaped to South Korea in 1998; in November, a South Korean official put the number at 60. The official noted, "We have been making diplomatic efforts to bring North Korean defectors to Seoul, most of whom take refuge in neighboring China."
After North Korean leader Kim Il Sung's death in 1994, South Korea received 198 North Korean defectors between 1994 and 1997, up from 35 between 1990 and 1993. More than 900 North Koreans have reportedly defected to the South since the formation of the South Korean government in 1948.
North Korean asylum seekers are a sensitive issue between Seoul and Beijing. For that reason, South Korea usually says the defectors arrived from "an unknown third country."
Russia also provided refuge to an unknown number of North Koreans during the year, often employing them at logging sites. In many cases, however, they could not leave their work sites without permission. In addition, while they were generally tolerated by the central government, local authorities often deported them. In October, UNHCR coordinated a flight to Seoul for four North Koreans who had lived in hiding in unidentified former Soviet republics for many years.
In December, about 100 North Korean defectors said they had been tortured by South Korean intelligence officials during post-arrival interrogations. The intelligence agency acknowledged that it interrogates most defectors to weed out possible spies, but it said allegations of torture were "totally untrue."
During the year, the relief agency Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) withdrew its workers from North Korea, saying the government had ordered it to stop treating the sick and hungry and to supply the local pharmaceutical industry instead. Although several relief agencies have operated in North Korea, the government has put severe restrictions on their operations.
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