South Koreans on Tuesday feared a mass influx of "boat people" from hungry North Korea after two families of 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 was funded 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.
One media report said the 32-ton craft was stocked with cartons of a popular South Korean cigarette.
South Koreans worry 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.
"Is this a signal for a mass exodus by sea?" asked the Dong-A Ihbo newspaper.
"What has added shock is the fact that they are the first `boat people' to defect to South Korea."
By North Korean standards, the 14 asylum seekers were fabulously rich, and their journey was meticulously planned.
The $20,000 was passed to one of the defectors at a meeting with the relative in China earlier this year, a defense ministry spokesman said.
South Korean naval officers who boarded the boat after it broke clear from a fleet of Chinese fishing smacks and made a dash for freedom found enough food to last several months, media reports said.
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 boarding party, were ferried to Inchon on a navy vessel.
Capt. Ahn Sun-kook, 48, carried his mother on his back as he came ashore in a rain deluge early on Tuesday. His wife, son and two daughters smiled brightly and waved to photographers.
"We came for freedom," said the boat's engineer Kim Won-hyung, 57, whose family of eight included his two year-old grandson, who looked healthy and plump despite 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 police spokesman Chung Moo-chang.