Many North Koreans continue to escape from their impoverished and repressive country. Last week, 29 escapees took refuge at a Japanese school in Beijing. Shortly afterward, they were taken to the Japanese Embassy for identification and questioning before being transferred to a third country. The South Korean government expressed its willingness to accept all of them.

This is the third time that North Koreans have sought asylum at a Japanese facility in China. In May 2002, five people entered the Consulate General in Shenyang; in February 2003, four others took refuge at the Beijing school. The latest group of 29 — 11 men, 15 women and three children — is the largest yet to seek protection at any diplomatic mission or foreign school in the country.

Reports show that the exodus from North Korea has accelerated since 2000, when those who entered South Korea via China and other countries numbered 583. The number jumped to 1,140 in 2001 and to 1,281 in 2002. The figure for this year is believed certain to hit a new record. Case-by-case numbers of asylum-seekers have also increased markedly, as illustrated by the latest incident. Also notable is the diversification of escape routes. In earlier years, most escapees went to South Korea from China. Now, however, more and more go first to Southeast Asian countries from China — a trend that appears to reflect a tightened crackdown by Chinese authorities.

In late July, about 460 people, divided into two groups, left Vietnam for South Korea. It is unknown how many North Korean escapees are living in China. Estimates range widely from several tens of thousands to about 300,000. Thus far South Korea has accepted about 5,000. The country is reportedly building facilities to accommodate many more. According to Unification Minister Chung Dong Young, roughly 10,000 North Koreans will likely enter the country in the next several years.

North Korea has only itself to blame for the exodus. The country was hit hard by famine beginning in the mid-1990s — largely the result of economic policy failures — and by severe floods in rural regions. An untold number of people have died from hunger, and more than a million are said to still face starvation.

International food aid is found very much wanting. The World Food Program, a U.N. affiliate, said in July that 6.5 million North Koreans needed assistance, but that only about 1.8 million, including pregnant women and babies, could be reached because aid had been drastically cut due to fund shortages. Earlier this year, Japan provided 125,000 tons of food, including rice, as the first batch of humanitarian aid that it had committed to North Korea. According to the WFP representative in Pyongyang, that amount is sufficient to feed about 6.5 million people. Reportedly the food situation in North Korea has improved somewhat, yet many people continue to flee the country. This suggests that a large part of the population — particularly those on the fringes of North Korean society — still suffer from chronic hunger.

In the view of a former U.S. State Department official for North Korean affairs, however, the problem with food aid is not quantitative but systemic — that is, an inefficient distribution system. The official, who visited North Korea last month, pointed out that much of the aid provided does not get to the people who really need it.

Two years ago, Pyongyang launched a string of economic reforms to introduce market transactions, albeit on a limited scale. As a result, prices went up but wages did not rise as much. It is said that the economy is still limping along and that the masses continue to have difficulty eking out a living.

Improving the lot of ordinary North Koreans should be the top priority of the North Korean leadership, yet Pyongyang keeps spending inordinate amounts of money on its programs to develop nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. In defiance of international opinion, it is playing a dangerous game of nuclear brinkmanship.

So far, North Korean responses to the escapee crisis have been not only cosmetic but also misguided. Authorities have not taken any fundamental action to stem the tide; they have tightened border controls, blaming South Korea and other countries for encouraging defections.

It seems certain that the number of escapees will increase until North Korea works out drastic remedies. The fundamental solution is to improve the well-being of its people. Pyongyang should know that endless streams of distressed people fleeing abroad represent a time bomb ticking in its midst.

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