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Tuesday, 16 January, 2001, 09:26 GMT
North Korean defections up
Pyongyang
North Korea is one of the world's most secretive states
Twenty-five North Korean defectors have fled to Seoul over the last fortnight, according to reports in South Korea.

The defectors, mostly women and children, arrived on flights from a third country and claimed citizenship.

food aid
Pyongyang relies on food aid
North Korea, the world's last Stalinist state, has suffered acute food shortages since the mid-1990s due to a series of natural disasters and economic mismanagement.

Aid workers believe up to two million people may have died as a result.

The latest exodus marks a significant increase in the rate of defections.

Last year 312 people fled to the South, which in turn was double the number who defected in 1999.

Most are reported to have defected because of the chronic food shortages.

In November, the United Nations warned that five million people faced starvation unless foreign aid was dramatically increased.

Starving to death

A German doctor, who was recently thrown out of Pyongyang, said last week that the situation in the countryside was deteriorating.

child in hospital
Children are dying in rural areas
He reported that children were dying in the streets and depression and alcoholism was widespread.

North Korea has depended on outside aid to feed its 22 million people since 1995.

And many in the countryside are relying increasingly on artificial food made from ground up twigs, bark and leaves.

The mixture is low in nutrition and can cause internal bleeding, dysentery and diarrhoea.

Bitter weather

North Korea, which is also gripped by a severe energy shortage, suffered record snowfalls and bitterly cold temperatures on Saturday and Sunday, according to reports.

The state news agency said temperatures plunged to -37 degrees centigrade.

Most of the rural population depend on wood gathered from the hillsides for heating and the majority of government offices and factories are unheated.

The Korean peninsula was divided into the Communist north and pro-West south in 1945.

Their 1950-53 war ended without a peace treaty. But relations have improved since June last year, when the two Korean leaders met for the first time and agreed to work towards ending hostilities.

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See also:

23 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Spy agency 'sacks N Korea defector'
09 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
N Koreans 'starving to death'
30 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Where famine stalks the land
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