For years, South Korea trumpeted the defection of the rare North Korean who managed to escape the regime of Communist dictator Kim Il Sung, with news conferences and lavish financial support.
But now Seoul faces a new and daunting problem: how to absorb potentially hundreds of defectors said to be fleeing Pyongyang's collapsing economy.
Officials here are reviewing their defector policy to focus more on vocational training and other skills rather than simply cash rewards. An ad-hoc committee was set up this week to look for ways to help defectors adjust to South Korea and survive on their own.
"The government will teach them how to catch the fish rather than give them the fish," the Seoul Shinmun, a Korean daily newspaper, reported.
Last week, eight new defectors turned up in Seoul with graphic accounts of the virtual state of starvation facing North Koreans. People reduced to eating corn paste and pine bark are now being allowed to travel more freely to scrounge for food, they said. Growing numbers are using the opportunity to secretly cross into China.
Analysts here say as many as 2,000 North Korean escapees may be hiding in China. Thousands more are said to be working as contract loggers in Siberia, and Seoul is currently involved in delicate negotiations with Moscow to accept at least 100 who have escaped. Pyongyang is vociferously protesting the release of the loggers, but Seoul is appealing on humanitarian grounds.
Those loggers hunted down by North Korean agents are said to have their legs broken and then to be executed publicly on return to the North. China, which has not signed U.N. international refugee pacts and has signed a treaty with Pyongyang to return illegal immigrants, is returning about 80% of them, according to Korean news reports.
Should war break out or the economy collapse completely, as many as 2 million refugees might stream over the border, one analyst said.
Such a flood could overwhelm Seoul. Under its "Special Law to Protect North Korean Brethren Defecting to the South," South Korea may pay defectors $19,000 to $31,500 for resettlement and a reward of 10 grams to 20,000 grams of gold for North Korean information and equipment. The first family to come, Kim Man Chol and 10 of his relatives, received $630,000 in government support after arriving in 1987.
So far, about 100 North Koreans have defected to the South. But many are said to be struggling despite generous government support.
"Some North Korean defectors are now leading poor lives after being swindled out of all the money the government gave them," said Park Sil, a member of the National Assembly Foreign-Unification Committee. "If they received vocational training, they would be leading stable lives now."
Ko Yong Hwan, 40, is an exception. A 20-year diplomat schooled in English and French, he defected from his post of first secretary in Congo three years ago. A colleague had tipped him off that two North Korean agents were about to arrest him because they suspected he had turned against communism.
In fact, he had: Ko had witnessed Mikhail S. Gorbachev's speech in Moscow in 1987 criticizing the socialist system and calling for glasnost and perestroika . He decided "North Korea has no hope," he said in an interview.
After he arrived in Seoul in May, 1991, the government gave him $50,500 to help him buy a house and provided security guards for the first six months. Officials also helped Ko find his present job as an analyst on North Korean affairs for a government institute; he also lectures and writes books.
An Economy on the Brink
Recent defectors say Pyongyang's economy is so bad that North Koreans are facing virtual starvation, and that some have been reduced to eating corn paste and pine bark.
Economic data show a yearly decline from 1990.
Per Capita GNP (in dollars)
GNP (in dollars)
1990: 21.1 billion
1991: 22.9 billion
1992: 21.1 billion
Grain Production (in tons)
1990: 5.48 million
1991: 4.43 million
1992: 4.40 million
Source: Korea Trade Promotion Corp.