Seoul wants to know how many refugees are in China Seoul is reportedly seeking to gauge the flow of North Koreans into China amid growing government fears over its ability to cope with the influx. The number of North Koreans who have crossed the land border into China is estimated to range from tens of thousands to 300,000. 'We need to know the exact number of North Korean asylum-seekers in China because the [Chinese] government and [South Korean] civic groups give different estimations,' a Seoul official was quoted as saying in South Korean newspaper reports. Seoul also wants to determine how long refugees stay on the mainland and the routes they take to reach South Korea. It intends to ask Beijing for assistance, and if it refused, Seoul would turn to non-government groups based in South Korea that help the refugees Anecdotal evidence suggests many stay in China for up to four years before attempting the perilous journey to the South. In the absence of legal protection, North Korean defectors in China are preyed on by criminal gangs. Often the refugees travel to a third country to claim asylum in South Korea as Seoul is wary of accepting refugees in China for fear of diplomatic fallout. Unification Ministry officials refused to acknowledge the survey, fearful of harming already strained relations with Pyongyang. South Korea last month accepted more than 450 North Korean refugees. The two plane-loads of refugees arriving in two days put a severe burden on South Korea's resources for absorbing refugees. In recent weeks, Seoul has come under fire from NGOs that claim the government is turning its back on the defectors for fear of provoking Pyongyang. The accusations followed comments by South Korea's Unification Minister, Chung Dong-young, who this month called on activists to refrain from helping North Koreans to defect, saying doing so could harm ties between the two nations. The government was then forced to issue a statement saying its policy of accepting all North Koreans who wanted to live in the South remained unchanged. But this has done little to placate the NGOs. They are also upset over comments made by Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon directed at NGOs aggressively helping North Koreans defect from the communist country. He said they could not expect the government to continually come to their assistance when their plans went awry. In recent years, the number of defectors claiming asylum has jumped. Of the 5,000 defectors who have arrived in the South since 1952, about 4,000 have been in the past five years.