SEOUL, South Korea – About 200 North Korean defectors, the largest group ever to reach South Korea, arrived in the capital on Tuesday, to be followed soon by an even larger group, according to a news report.
A trickle of defectors to the South has grown into a steady stream in recent years as more North Koreans flee hunger and repression in their communist country, mostly fleeing across its long border with China before heading to other countries.
Analysts said it was too soon to say whether Tuesday's group heralds the start of a mass exodus. Previously, defecting North Koreans have arrived in the South in small groups of three or four, or a dozen.
"I think it is difficult to interpret the latest event as a possible beginning of mass defection," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea (search) expert in Seoul. Koh said North Korea probably would try to crack down harder on its citizens seeking to flee.
The defectors arrived from an unidentified Asian country on a plane chartered by the South Korean government, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said. South Korean government officials declined to confirm the report.
Yonhap said the 200 North Koreans were among 460 defectors that South Korea is trying to bring in from a Southeast Asian country. The second group was expected to arrive Wednesday.
The defectors were whisked away in five buses. The government typically puts defectors through a month of questioning before giving them a two-month orientation course on how to make their way in their new capitalist home.
Television footage showed buses standing near the Asiana Airlines plane, and later taking the people away. However, reporters were barred from getting close to the scene.
More than 60 percent of the 460 defectors are women and children, and most of them had illegally entered the Southeast Asian country via China, Yonhap said.
Human rights groups have said that hundreds of North Koreans were living in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries, and were eager to travel to South Korea.
Over 5,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War (search). Last year, the number of defectors arriving in the South reached 1,285, up from 1,140 in 2002 and 583 in 2001.
South Korea's Unification Minister Chung Dong-young said Tuesday the number of defectors was expected to reach 10,000 within "a couple of years."
"It is necessary to review and upgrade the general policy," toward the defectors, Chung said. "Until now, it was more at the level of helping a small group of North Korean defectors settling down."
North Korea has been depending on outside help to feed its 22 million people since 1995.
The Koreas were divided in 1945. Their border remains sealed and heavily guarded by nearly 2 million troops on both sides following the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.