South Korea braced for mob reprisals Tuesday after 237 people suspected of trying to cross the porous border illegally from North Korea were discovered to have been giving them a final religious push.
The discovery, along with the arrests of 145 of the men and women, comes in a week in which North and South Korea traded threats of war and nuclear war amid tension over a nuclear arms programme.
South Korea has said some North Koreans were trying to flee the North to reunite with relatives on the other side of the border, while others sought to cross for religious reasons.
With the North threatening further missiles tests, countries on both sides have sought to dissuade their citizens from travelling to the other country’s side.
Reunification ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said Tuesday that the authorities in the eastern province of Gangwon had found 237 people had crossed the border illegally in recent days.
“It’s clear that these people crossed the border for illegal economic purposes,” he said.
“Some of them were religious travelers who have been given final exits permits and religious freedom (by North Korea),” he added.
Baik said those who had been officially granted “freedom for religious activity” by North Korea had been given eight family members each to travel, allowing an estimated total of 2,500 North Koreans to cross into South Korea.
Official channels between the two Koreas are far from fully functional.
North Koreans who manage to cross the border illegally – either by impersonating South Koreans, using documents supplied by defectors, or paying people smugglers for the trip – are processed through specialised inter-Korean border police teams.
As few as three in 10 survive that initial probe, making it tough to trace them for prosecution.
As the number of defectors has increased since 2010, the police have increasingly sought to crack down on individuals who leave the country illegally.
“If someone tries to take a longer route (to avoid detection), they would not likely receive a more thorough border inspection,” said Lee Jong-wha, a Seoul-based border expert.
Baik said 414 North Koreans had sought exits permits and that authorities “were investigating legal moves to lower waiting times” to just five hours.
Baik said that besides individuals and families being taken to a crowded hospital, 16 women had been sent to quarantine camps to be quarantined for possible exposure to diseases.