Chun Ki-won, director of the Seoul-based Durihana Mission group that arranged the defections earlier this week of 12 North Koreans to the U.S., talks to the media during a press conference in Seoul, Friday, March 2, 2007. Chun said some 80 North Korean refugees in hiding across Asia are preparing to seek asylum in the United States. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
SEOUL, South Korea --Eighty North Korean refugees are hiding in various Asian countries and preparing to seek asylum in the United States, a South Korean activist said Friday.
Chun Ki-won, director of the Seoul-based Durihana Mission group that arranged the defections earlier this week of 12 North Koreans to the U.S. -- the largest such group in recent times -- said similar preparations were under way in five southeast Asian countries to arrange refugees' travel to the U.S.
"Eighty North Koreans will be able to go to the United States" in coming months, Chun told reporters in Seoul. He said it was not known exactly when they would be allowed to travel there.
Chun also said his group was aware of about 420 other North Koreans who are hiding in the region and awaiting asylum in South Korea.
Thousands of North Koreans have fled their impoverished communist homeland to escape hunger and political repression in recent years, many taking a long and risky land journey through China to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and other southeast Asian countries on their way to asylum.
More than 10,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953, most of them arriving in recent years.
A small but growing number of North Koreans are seeking asylum in the U.S. after Washington passed the 2004 North Korea Human Rights Act, which mandates assistance to refugees fleeing the North. However, activist groups have criticized Washington for being slow to offer help to refugees.
The latest arrivals Wednesday of 12 defectors raises to 31 the number of North Koreans to have recently sought refuge in the United States.
On Thursday in Washington, the U.S. envoy on North Korean human rights, Jay Lefkowitz, said he expects the number of North Korean refugees coming to the U.S. to increase.
"We impose no quota or limit on the number we are willing to accept," he said at a Congressional hearing.
The latest defections come as the U.S. and North Korea prepare to meet in New York next week to discuss establishing normal relations after decades of animosity. Those talks were enabled under a breakthrough Feb. 13 deal in which the North pledged initial steps to dismantling its nuclear weapons program.
It is not known how the latest defections could affect the nuclear agreement, although the North is highly sensitive to criticism of its human rights record and treats it as a thinly veiled attack on the regime.