BEIJING, Oct 26: North Korea's flow of refugees to China and the world could become a torrent fed by isolation and starvation, an international think-tank warned today in a new report urging governments to avoid a catastrophe.
The North's nuclear test, the revival of inflexible controls on farming and trade, and its rejection of aid meant ''the perfect storm may be brewing for a return to famine in the North'', said the International Crisis Group (ICG).
''Concerned governments can and must do more to improve the situation of the refugees and asylum seekers before it leads to catastrophe,'' it said in the report.
China, where many North Koreans fleeing economic misery and political repression first head, should stop forcing them back and ease restrictions on North Koreans marrying locals or visiting kin, said the Brussels-based non-profit group.
The report comes at a time when North Korea's October 9 nuclear test has raised widespread worries about the direction and stability of the isolated fortress state, which had been taking cautious steps to revive its economy.
The number of North Koreans hiding in China, hoping to settle down there or move to another country, can only be guessed.
Refugee groups cited by the ICG estimated their number reached 100,000 or more in the 1990s, when famine and relatively lax border controls opened cracks in North Korea's rigid system.
Since then, the flow of ''border crossers'' along northeast China's frontier with North Korea seems to have fallen. There are now probably tens of thousands, some marrying locals, and all prey to regular hunts, fines and repatriation by border police, the ICG said.
China repatriates between 150 and 300 North Koreans every week, it added.
About 9,000 refugees from the North have made it to South Korea, usually first travelling from China to Mongolia, Vietnam, Thailand or other Asian stepping stones, the report said.
The nuclear crisis and North Korean economic reversals now threaten to unleash a new high tide of refugees, the report suggested.
''With food shortages threatening to return to famine levels, migrating to different cities or to China will be one of the coping strategies used by hungry North Koreans.'' China may also be preparing for this likelihood. Recently, the country has been building a wire fence on its side of the river border.
But a lasting solution for North Korea's refugees demands more humane and flexible policies from China and other countries, and above all economic and political improvement in the North, the Crisis Group said.
''The plight of North Koreans seeking refuge in China ... is likely to get much worse until greater pressure is placed on China to adjust its practices.''