, SEOUL, Oct 5 – An estimated 100,000 North Koreans are believed to be hiding out in China after fleeing their poverty-stricken homeland, South Korea\’s unification minister said Tuesday.
"We estimate that the number of North Koreans who renounced the North and live in China could be some 100,000," Hyun In-Taek told legislators during an annual parliamentary audit, according to Yonhap news agency.
Asked about media reports that Chinese and North Korean security authorities work together to catch refugees in China, Hyun said the South Korean government "has made diplomatic efforts and will continue such efforts" to protect them.
The vast majority of refugees cross the border river into China, since escape across the heavily fortified inter-Korean frontier is very difficult.
But under an agreement with its ally Pyongyang, Beijing treats those North Koreans it catches as economic migrants rather than refugees and sends them home, where they can face harsh punishment.
The policy has been criticised by rights and refugee groups.
About 20,000 North Koreans have defected to the South, mostly via China, since the end of the 1950-53 war. They usually travel on clandestinely to third countries, often in Southeast Asia, before reaching Seoul.