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More than 1,500 North Koreans escape to South in 2013: ministry

SEOUL -- More than 1,500 North Koreans fled to South Korea last year, maintaining a recent fall in the number of escapees that coincided with a clampdown by new leader Kim Jong Un.

Five years ago the annual number of escapees was close to 3,000, but the number dropped sharply after Kim came to power in December 2011, following the death of his father Kim Jong Il.

The number of North Koreans fleeing to the South — most of them via China — slumped to 1,502 in 2012, while last year the figure was slightly higher at 1,516, Seoul's unification ministry said.

Under Kim Jong Un, the isolated state tightened border security and stepped up diplomatic campaigns to have refugees hiding in China repatriated.

The majority of refugees secretly cross the border to China before traveling to a neighboring Southeast Asian country, where they arrange to fly on to Seoul for resettlement.

China — the North's sole major ally — typically considers them illegal economic migrants and repatriates them despite criticisms from human rights groups.

Many face severe punishment including, rights monitors say, torture and a term in a prison camp once they are sent back to the North.

A rare repatriation in May of nine mostly teenage North Koreans arrested in Laos — previously considered a relatively safe transit point — was condemned by South Korea and the United Nations.

In total, about 26,1000 North Korean defectors have resettled in the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, mostly after the great famine in the 1990s.

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