Fourteen North Korean defectors - the first to flee by sea from their communist homeland - arrived in South Korea today, saying that North Koreans are starving for freedom as well as food.
“I have been listening to South Korean radio for seven years and have come to know that there is real freedom here,” Ahn Sun-kuk, 49, leader of the group, said early today upon arrival in this port west of Seoul.
“It’s miserable,” Ahn shouted when reporters asked about the food situation in North Korea, which, U.N. officials say, could face famine in weeks.
The five men, five women and four children - the youngest age 2 - immediately were taken away by intelligence officials for interrogation.
A South Korean navy patrol rescued the North Koreans from their leaking boat off the western coast of the Korean peninsula on Monday afternoon.
After a 27-hour voyage through rough seas, the defectors looked tired but smiled constantly. Ahn, with his 68-year-old mother on his back and holding an umbrella in the drizzling rain, led others in shouting cheers to dozens of reporters.
South Korean Defense Ministry officials said Ahn and five of his family members had left Friday from Shinuiju, a North Korean port city on the border with China. Ahn had kept emergency food, a radio and a portable phone he had bought in China to prepare for the defection.
The Defense Ministry said the 14 were the first North Korean “boat people” to defect to South Korea.
About 150 North Koreans have defected to South Korea in the past three years - all through China or across the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.