As many as 700 people have escaped from North Korea and are attempting to defect to the South, according to the South Korean President Kim Young- sam. Western diplomats say that the prospect of a mass exodus from the ailing Stalinist state is causing anxiety in Seoul.
Since devastating floods last summer which destroyed farmland and washed away homes in North Korea, the annual trickle of a dozen or so defectors has turned into a steady stream, adding to speculation that the secretive republic may be approaching internal collapse. But Mr Kim's speech, to a group of elderly Koreans born in the North before the peninsula was divided by the 1950 Korean War, is the first time that the Seoul government has publicly named the number of potential refugees.
"The government is accepting North Koreans on a selective basis," Mr Kim said. "But we are experiencing a lot of difficulties." Seoul maintains a resettlement programme for defectors who are regularly presented to the media with lurid stories of North Korean oppression and atrocities.
Over the New Year, a diplomat in the North Korean embassy in Zambia defected with his wife, and in February, a former wife of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, was revealed to have fled her home in Moscow for asylum in Europe. But most of the refugees are poor workers in North Korean logging camps, and traders who have crossed the mountainous northern border into China and Russia. A report in the Korea Herald this week quoted unnamed Seoul officials as saying that the total number of refugees from North Korea is between 1,200 and 1,500.
"There's a worry that they may be swamped," a Western diplomat said yesterday. "The first fear is that subversives could slip in pretending to be defectors, and they're also concerned about upsetting the social balance."