More than 400 North Koreans in Thai custody have ended a two-day hunger strike. The refugees were protesting delays by South Korea in helping them resettle to the South. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin reports on the South Korean promises that have, for now, brought the episode to an end.
Advocates for the North Koreans in Thailand say the refugees began eating again Thursday night. The 100 men and 314 women began refusing food Tuesday evening to protest what they say has been months of delay by South Korea in coming to their assistance.
Under South Korean law, North Korean defectors are automatically granted citizenship and government assistance in resettling. More than 10,000 North Korean defectors now live here, the majority of them having fled the North over the past 10 years to escape severe food shortages and political repression.
South Korean officials do not comment publicly on North Korean refugee issues as a matter of policy. Privately, however, they confirm that Seoul brokered a deal with Bangkok to transport a total of 25 of the North Koreans to the South by Saturday. The deal provides for the rest of the refugees to be brought to the South at the rate of 20 per month.
Peter Jung, a activist for North Korean refugees here in Seoul, criticizes Seoul for letting this latest situation get out of control.
Jung says the South Korean Foreign Ministry was in the process of changing senior diplomatic postings in Bangkok, and did not have the officials in place to push hard for the North Koreans' relocation. It was the hunger strike and the media attention, he says, that spurred the two countries into action.
The issue of North Korean defectors is one of the most sensitive aspects of the inter-Korean relationship. Under its engagement policy with the North, South Korea carefully avoids criticizing or confronting Pyongyang, saying such actions create the risk of instability on the peninsula.
Tens of thousands of North Korean refugees are believed to be in China, hoping eventually to reach South Korea via various Southeast Asian nations. However, China classifies North Korean defectors as economic migrants, not refugees. United Nations refugee organizations are refused access to these defectors, who are often repatriated by the Chinese to face severe punishment, or even execution.
South Korea flew more than 400 North Korean defectors here from Vietnam in 2004, to Pyongyang's great displeasure. Authorities in Seoul say they will not attempt such a mass transportation again.
Experts say both China and South Korea are eager to avoid any action that might turn the flow of North Korean refugees into a flood. The two countries fear a mass exodus from the North would create a security crisis, and severely drain Chinese and South Korean economic resources.