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 Wednesday, 29 January, 2003, 01:10 GMT
Escaping North Korea
North Korean refugees arrive at Inchon airport
North Koreans are fleeing from poverty and repression
Every year thousands of refugees try and escape from North Korea, while many others live in hiding in China. Caroline Gluck, the BBC's Seoul correspondent looks at their plight.

More than 1,000 North Koreans were granted asylum in the South last year, nearly double the figure for the previous year.

But the exodus has prompted a crackdown on those trying to follow in their footsteps as China and North Korea have stepped up security along their joint border.

At a news conference in Seoul, Kang Hye-won appeals for the release of her husband, Seok Jae-Hyun, a South Korean freelance photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times.

Kang Hye-won's husband was arrested in North Korea
Kang Hye-won made a plea for her husband's release

He was arrested, along with 48 North Koreans, as they were trying to leave China by boat earlier this month.

Mr Seok has been charged with human trafficking.

"I need your help so I can once more embrace my husband. He volunteered to go through a dangerous path with the North Korean defectors, the activists who were arrested with my husband, and I also ask for your help for the defectors, who will die if they are sent back to North Korea." said Kang Hye-Won.

The crackdown on North Koreans in China has also affected journalists trying to travel to the border.

James Brooke, Korea correspondent for the New York Times, said many of his colleagues in China had been detained or questioned trying to cover the story.

"My impression of northern China is that they would wish the story to disappear, and the way you make a story disappear is you keep the reporters from uncovering it, and I think they're in the process of doing that," he said.

But despite the increased risks, refugee groups and missionaries are determined to continue their efforts to try to help the estimated 300,000 North Koreans hiding in China.

Provocative move

Activists involved in the latest failed escape have offered to swap places with the photographer and another South Korean man who was detained with the group and who is ill.

A German doctor, Norbert Vollertsen, who worked in North Korea and has been an outspoken campaigner on refugee issues, admitted it could be seen as a provocative move.

"It's always provocative; whatever I'm doing, whatever I'm planning is provocative. I believe in provocation... it will create something new, " Mr Vollertsen said.

The youngest refugee waves at the press
Families risk everything for a better future

" We do not hesitate to offer this... because we are secured by media coverage; that's our life insurance. But those North Korean refugees, who are in danger in North Korea and in the Chinese-North Korean border area, they do not have this life insurance," he said.

Media groups in South Korea, Japan and America have all lodged official protests over the detention of the South Korean photographer Seok Jae-Hyun.

While publicity about his plight could result in his release, the fate of the North Koreans is far less certain.


Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

TALKING POINT
See also:

26 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
24 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
24 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
22 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
10 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
13 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
10 Jan 03 | Asia-Pacific
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