Seoul (AsiaNews/AFP) - Some 200 North Korean refugees airlifted from an unspecified Asian country arrived at a South Korean military airport on Tuesday aboard a chartered flight, witnesses said.
It was the largest single group of North Korean defectors to arrive in South Korea for resettlement after fleeing their impoverished homeland, officials and experts said.
The North Koreans arrived at Seongnam military airport south of Seoul on an Asiana Airlines flight from a third country whose identity has not been revealed for security reasons, according to officials here.
Another batch of refugees from the same country was expected to arrive here on Wednesday, bringing the total to around 450.
North Koreans have been escaping their communist homeland in increasing numbers in recent years. With the highly fortified inter-Korean border closed, they first cross the northern border into China before fleeing to a third country.
Beijing, a close ally of Pyongyang, refuses to grant North Korean defectors refugee status and considers them illegal economic migrants. If it catches the defectors, they are repatriated.
According to media reports here, the Asian country where the more than 400 defectors were staying had threatened to send them back to China unless South Korea agreed to accept them.
About 5,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953. The number has risen significantly in recent years, with 1,285 defecting in 2003, up from 1,140 in 2002 and 583 in 2001.
In the first six months of the year, 760 North Koreans arrived here, mostly via China where tens of thousands of North Koreans are said to be in hiding.
The latest batch of North Koreans was expected to be debriefed by representatives from government agencies, including the National Intelligence Service, before being moved to resettlement centres.