Seoul agrees to take in 400 refugees from North
Khang Hyun-sung and Reuters in Seoul
Welcome for biggest group of asylum seekers yet shows South's softer stance
Up to 400 North Korean refugees are due to arrive in the South next week from temporary asylum in an unnamed Southeast Asian country, the largest single group of defectors to be accepted since the peninsula was divided more than 40 years ago.
'The government has decided [to grant asylum to defectors] after holding talks with the government of an Asian country, where about 300 or 400 defectors are staying,' Kyunghyang newspaper reported.
The defectors were said to have arrived in the unidentified third country via China and were living in facilities supported by the South Korean government and relief organisations, the report added.
The refugees' anticipated arrival was confirmed by a South Korean government official. He declined to name the country giving them shelter, saying its government had asked not to be identified.
The move underlines the transformation of Seoul's attitude towards refugees from the North, which over the past decade has changed from one of unremitting hostility to cautious compassion.
Fewer than 10 years ago, Seoul regarded North Koreans as agents of an enemy state and, despite reports of a food crisis which is now said to have claimed as many as one million lives, South Korean embassies turned away North Koreans seeking asylum.
Kang Yeo-kyong, of the Good Friends group which helps refugees, said: 'In 1996, when we started our work, just for giving assistance to North Korean refugees we had to bear accusations of being 'reds' and 'commies'.'
South Korean media said the government had been working since late May to bring the refugees to the South. Chun Ki-won, who leads a group of missionaries that has helped some in the group, said the 400 or so refugees had travelled to the host country separately and 'created a big backlog'.
When the refugee numbers started to create problems for the host country, its government said it would send them back to China, said Mr Chun. It was then that Seoul apparently stepped in.
Seoul's softer approach was initiated under former president Kim Dae-jung's 'sunshine policy' of engagement towards Pyongyang. In 1998, it deemed that under the country's constitution, North Koreans were citizens of South Korea and therefore eligible for residency.
'Prior to 1998 it would have been very difficult for any [North Korean] refugees to be accepted by the South, but Seoul has completely changed its attitude. It is now one of the major donors of aid to the country,' said Ms Kang of Good Friends.
Seoul has taken in more than 1,000 refugees a year recently. But there are serious questions about South Korea's long-term ability to cope with the large number of defectors from the North.