South Koreans Fear Influx As First 'Boat People' Arrive

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Koreans on Tuesday feared a mass influx of "boat people" from hungry North Korea after two families totalling 14 people made possibly the first direct escape by sea to the South.

But there was little to suggest that the well-fed and smartly dressed defectors who stepped ashore at the western port city of Inchon heralded the start of a refugee crisis.

Defense Minister Kim Dong-jin told a hastily arranged cabinet meeting the flight had been financed by a relative in the United States with a $20,000 gift -- $5,500 of which was used to buy a boat that was laden with food and even boasted a portable telephone.

South Koreans worry that a collapse of the near-starving North could trigger a seaborne invasion of boat people similar to the Vietnamese refugees who landed on Asian shores in a flotilla of vessels starting in the 1970s.

By North Korean standards, the 14 asylum seekers were fabulously rich, and their journey was meticulously planned.

Both the engineer and the captain of the boat had unusual freedom to travel since they were entrusted by the Stalinist government to earn foreign currency.

The boat was abandoned just south of a nautical demarcation line that has split the two Koreas since their 1950-53 war. The Northerners, who had shown a white flag to the South Korean boarding party, were ferried to Inchon on a navy vessel.

"We came for freedom," said engineer Kim Won-hyung, 57, whose family of eight included his 2-year-old grandson, who looked healthy and plump despite chronic food shortages gripping the North.

"If the information provided by the captain is true, it would be the first defection direct by sea from North Korea," said Korea Maritime Police spokesman Chung Moo-chang.