SEOUL — The 25 North Korean defectors who stormed into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing last week in a bid for freedom arrived safely in South Korea on Monday, and political activists, emboldened by the success, promised more dramatic operations in China and elsewhere in behalf of defectors.
The activists who staged the Beijing operation said they are trying to replicate the historic events of 1989 that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
"We will create a flood of refugees to embassies, and it will lead to the collapse of North Korea," said Norbert Vollertsen, a 44-year-old German physician, who spent 18 months as an aid worker in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and who now agitates against the Communist regime. "This is the way it happened in 1989, in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. First there were a few dozen defectors, then hundreds and then thousands."
The storming of the Spanish Embassy on Thursday was a deliberate restaging of an incident in September 1989 in the Czech capital, Prague, when more than 1,100 East German defectors scaled the fence of the West German Embassy, attaining asylum and demanding safe passage to the West.
An estimated 100,000 to 400,000 North Koreans are living clandestinely in China, having escaped their famine-ridden homeland. But China, honoring a repatriation treaty with North Korea, routinely hunts them down and sends them back to North Korea, where they face imprisonment and sometimes torture or execution. In addition, the South Korean Embassy in Beijing is restricted by China from directly helping defectors.
After a journey from China that took them through Manila to the South Korean capital, the North Korean defectors stepped off a plane Monday at Seoul's Inchon airport for a brief but emotional welcoming ceremony. They waved, accepted flowers and expressed thanks to their South Korean hosts. They had no luggage but clutched duty-free airport shopping bags with gifts from their airline.
"I want to live as a free man in a free country," declared Lee Song, 43, a factory worker, as his pigtailed 7-year-old daughter hid from the cameras behind her mother's legs.
Kim Hyang, a 16-year-old orphan, said she will study in South Korea so she can help needy North Korean children when she is an adult.
The defectors, 14 adults and 11 children, were whisked off for medical treatment and questioning by South Korean intelligence officials before being sent to Hanawon, an acclimation center for North Korean refugees 30 miles south of Seoul.
At the same time, the South Korean government announced a $5-million expansion of Hanawon. And South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se Hyun, the government's point man on North Korean relations, issued a strong statement of support for defectors, saying, "It is the basic policy of the government to accept and accommodate all North Korean defectors from a humanitarian viewpoint."
South Korea views the increasing number of defectors with some trepidation. Last year, 583 North Koreans came to the South, nearly double the number in 2000. With the latest arrivals Monday, the figure so far this year has reached 141--53 in the last week alone. Defectors now get about $28,000 each to resettle, but those funds will be badly stretched if there turns out to be an exodus. The defections also could jeopardize efforts by South Korean President Kim Dae Jung to salvage his "sunshine policy" of engagement with the North.
Efforts to Topple Regime
Refugee advocates, Christian missionaries and conservative political activists have been working quietly with the defectors in China for years, but they have decided that the time is now ripe to burst upon the international stage with more daring acts. Their goal is not merely to help defectors but to trigger a series of events that they believe could topple the North Korean government, the last bastion of undiluted communism.
"I hope more escapes will be possible as we saw when East Germans flocked into West Germany as the wall fell," said Kenkichi Nakahira, head of the Tokyo-based Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, one of the groups involved in the planning.
Indeed, the activists had originally intended to use the German Embassy in a deliberate effort to evoke memories of Prague and of similar embassy sit-ins in the Hungarian capital, Budapest. But they switched to the Spanish Embassy at the last minute because of its less stringent security.
Last week's incident was more a carefully planned covert operation than a spontaneous occurrence. The group of about 30 activists--Japanese, Koreans, Americans and Europeans, most of whom did not want to be identified--spent months preparing for it. They cased embassies and surreptitiously photographed the diplomatic missions' security precautions. They carefully selected and rehearsed the defectors.