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S. Korean Lawyers Seek to Help North Korean Defectors in Burma

A group of South Korean lawyers say they will do what they can to help a group of North Korean defectors on trial in Burma for illegal immigration. The group apparently includes children of North Korean escapees who have already settled in the South Korean capital.

The South Korean Bar Association of Human Rights lawyers says it will file a petition to a Burma court, in hopes of securing the release of 19 North Korean defectors being detained there.

A member of the association, Park Min-jae, says lawyers are ready to travel to Burma, if necessary.

She says a trial of the defectors for illegal immigration is underway and that it is hard to predict how that will turn out.

The 19 North Korean defectors apparently being detained by authorities in Burma are among those who have fled their country's harsh deprivation and political repression, over the years. Defectors typically make a dangerous and illegal journey through China to Southeast Asian countries where they apply for asylum and seek passage to South Korea. Because China does not recognize North Korean defectors as refugees, many are sent home involuntarily to face harsh punishment or even death.

Adding emotional urgency to the case is the fact that four of the defectors are apparently children whose mothers have already settled in South Korea. A woman who says two of the children are hers tells South Korean media the group had arranged with an underground travel broker for passage to Thailand. However, they were transported to Burma, instead.

Thailand is widely considered one of the more politically favorable destinations for North Korean defectors hoping to reach the South. Burma re-established diplomatic ties with North Korea last year, possibly increasing the chance the 19 defectors may be returned home.

Park, the South Korean lawyer, says South Korean officials are doing their best to help the group. She says their fate is in the hands of the Burmese government.

She says, as a nongovernmental organization from a third country, all her association can do is make its case based on civil rights. She says that, in terms of international law, the defectors do not have the protections that come with formal refugee status.

About 14,000 North Korean defectors have resettled in South Korea, where they are automatically recognized as citizens under the constitution. International human rights groups say tens of thousands of others are living illegally in China, possibly hoping to do the same.