Seoul (AsiaNews) - Despite increasingly serious risks, the number of people fleeing the North Korean regime has increased this year.
Data released today by South Korea's Ministry of Unification show that a total of 360 North Koreans defected to South Korea during the first quarter of 2014: 153 in January, 111 in February and 96 in March.
The figures represent an increase over the same period last year but it would be premature to assume a rise in defector numbers across the board, a ministry official said.
North Koreans who choose to flee run a very high risk. Since the border with the South is highly militarised, they are forced to go to China first. Here, they can be repatriated in case of arrest.
Beijing has in fact signed an agreement with Pyongyang. Under its terms, North Koreans are defined as 'economic migrants', undeserving of any political consideration.
And if they are caught and sent home, they face the death penalty or a decade of hard labour for "treason."
North Korea's new dictator Kim Jong-un has tightened the noose around refugees. In 2012, the first year of his "reign" following the death of his father Kim Jong-il, only 1,502 North Koreans were able to make it to South Korea compared to an average of 3,000 per year before that. In 2013, only 1,514 fugitives made it.
However, these figures do not tell the whole story since it is impossible to know how many North Koreans choose to remain undocumented in China.
Since the division of the peninsula, the Catholic Church in South Korea has helped refugees, who are called 'Saeteomin' ('new settlers' or 'people of new land').
South Korean Catholics have organised programmes promoting social inclusion, language training and 'civic education' for the refugees.
They have also helped find jobs and overcome the wall of racism that permeates South Korean society against its "northern brothers".