22 N.Koreans Brave Perilous West Sea Escape Route

A five-ton wooden boat carrying 22 North Korean defectors was spotted by a South Korean Navy ship around 3 a.m. on Oct. 30 some 38 km south of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border, and 41 km west of Daecheong Island.

The 12 male and 10 female defectors included eight children, including three under 10, according to a South Korean security official.

A South Korean government official said all of them want to defect to the South. This was the fourth time North Koreans took the perilous route across the West Sea this year.

Only a few North Koreans dare to escape across the sea, because they have to be ready to prepared to find themselves adrift. According to the Unification Ministry, 112 North Koreans fled from the seaport of Nampo and 334 from South Hwanghae Province, which borders the West Sea, by late last year. They accounted for a mere 2 percent of all 21,294 defectors who had reached South Korea as of April this year.

◆ Perilous Journey

North Korean boat people usually sail into the dark with only 10 days' supply of food and drinking water and 15 day’s supply of diesel, defectors say.

They use wooden sloops 8-10 m long and about 2 m wide, which fit five to six people, but often three times as many people get aboard. The only navigational equipment they carry is a compass.

The five-ton sloops are motor-powered, but the battered old Chinese-made motors break down often and the boats easily capsize in 2 m-high waves, said Kim Sung-min of Free North Korea Radio. "Nobody knows exactly how many North Koreans have lost their lives while attempting to escape by sea," he added.

Usually only fishermen and other coastal residents who know the tides well dare to escape that way.

One 49-year-old defector named Choi fled across the West Sea from an island near Sonchon in North Pyongan Province together with 21 others in August 2002. "Most people escaping by sea are fishermen in coastal waters," he said. They flee from the Hwanghae and Pyongan provinces on the west coast, and from Kangwon Province on the east coast.

Getting out of port is also dangerous. To avoid the suspicions of the security forces, would-be defectors have to disguise themselves by taking as little food and drinking water as possible and taking fishing nets as if they were just going out to fish.

◆ Southward Tides

The tides in the West Sea run north-south and reverse at intervals of six hours in waters west of Daecheong Island, where the latest boat was found. The tides run at a speed of three to four knots (5.55 to 7.4 km/h), twice as fast as tides in other areas.

According to the Korea Hydrographic and Oceanographic Administration, tides ran south from around 11 p.m. on Oct. 29 to around 5 p.m. on Oct. 30 and waves were still about 1 m high in the area where the boat was found.

"It seems that group took advantage of the best time and weather conditions to escape the North," a KHOA official said. "At least one of them must know the tides well."

englishnews@chosun.com / Nov. 07, 2011 11:41 KST