SEOUL -- South Korea says it plans to crack down on people who demand money for organizing mass defections of North Koreans desperate to leave their isolated, Stalinist homeland.
But human rights groups worry that the move is aimed at appeasing the North and China, Pyongyang's last major ally and the waystation for many would-be North Korean defectors.
So-called brokers -- often ethnic Koreans in China, South Korean entrepreneurs, or North Korean defectors in the South -- select would-be defectors from the tens of thousands of North Koreans who flee their hunger-stricken homeland and hide in northeastern China.
They then help the North Koreans barge into foreign embassies in Beijing and other Asian capitals, in the hopes that they will eventually be allowed to travel to South Korea.
Nearly 83 percent of the 1,850 North Koreans who reached South Korea this year came with the help of brokers who received an average of $3,800 per person, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.
As the trickle of defectors from the communist North has swelled into a torrent in recent years, controversy over the brokers has intensified.
China calls them human traffickers and sentences them to prison, and North Korea accuses South Korea and the United States of "kidnapping" its people.
Some defectors have contended that the brokers charge too much for their services -- and in some cases hold their families for ransom. Brokers also put defectors at great risk, and some abandon the escapees after being paid, critics say.
On Thursday, Seoul said it would deploy more police to monitor the activities of the brokers in South Korea and said it was considering the prevention of those brokers accused of extortion from leaving South Korea.
Seoul will also drastically cut financial assistance paid to defectors next year, from $26,600 to $9,500 per person. That aid is often used to pay off the brokers, and to smuggle more relatives from the North.
Rim Young Son, a North Korean who escaped to South Korea in 1993, admitted to charging defectors, but said the money barely covered his costs, which included bribes to North Korean border guards.
"Some brokers milk their victim's entire financial aid from the government," Rim said. "They give a bad name to people like us."