Defectors out of Laos detained by Thai police

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Defectors out of Laos detained by Thai police

More than a dozen North Korean defectors were detained by police in Thailand Sunday, according to various media reports, en route to a third country where they could seek asylum, probably South Korea.

Japanese media reported yesterday that a group of 13 North Korean females, including two children, appeared to have been smuggled into Thailand Sunday and arrested for illegal entry into the country. The group appeared to have entered Thailand after passing through China and Laos, reported Kyodo News.

Thai media, however, said the group was 15 strong and that the defectors walked from the banks of the Mekong River to Chiang Saen District in Chiang Rai Province, northern Thailand, near the border with Laos, where they were arrested.

Thailand’s English-language daily The Nation quoted witnesses claiming they saw the group transported by a Laotian boat from the opposite side of the river bank. The boat allegedly sped back to Laos after dropping off its passengers.

Defectors often travel through China and Laos to reach Thailand, where they request asylum from South Korea or other countries. The trips through China and Laos can be hazardous and the defectors are at risk of being arrested and repatriated. But once they reach Thailand, they are generally considered safe.

It’s unclear why this group’s arrival in Thailand was being publicized.

The defectors underwent interrogation by Thai immigration officials. They told Thai police that they came from North Hamgyong Province and hoped to seek asylum in South Korea or another third country.

“Embassy officials in Thailand and related officials are aware of the situation and will issue measures to relevant branches if the detained defectors wish to go to South Korea or any other place,” a South Korean official in Seoul said.

Further details were not disclosed to ensure the safety of the defectors.

Each year, it is estimated over a thousand defectors take such routes to escape North Korea.

Last July, a group of 12 defectors were caught by Thai officials in the same province after escaping from North Korea through China and Laos. After interrogation, they were sent to South Korea.

A group of nine young North Korean defectors were caught in Laos and surrendered to North Korea last June, raising international alarm over the safety of the youths.

The South Korean government has emphasized the principle of non-refoulement, a cornerstone of asylum and refugee law banning forced return of refugees to the country in which they were or might be persecuted.

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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