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Activists Plan to Draw Attention to Plight of N. Koreans by Flooding Embassies with Asylum Seekers - 2003-08-01

Japanese Embassy officials in Thailand spent Friday interviewing 10 suspected North Korean asylum seekers who burst into their diplomatic compound the day before.

German human rights activist Dr. Norbert Vollertsen says the 10 people who entered the Japanese Embassy compound Thursday in Bangkok were smuggled into Thailand as part of a plan to flood Western embassies in Southeast Asia with desperate North Koreans.

Dr. Vollertsen told VOA that the activists want to draw attention to the plight of North Koreans and the appalling human rights conditions in their country. He said embassies across Southeast Asia can expect more North Koreans on their doorsteps.

"We are focusing on Japan mainly because we want to create a diplomatic mess," he explained. "We want to create more attention. We are also focusing on the United States, and for sure, on my home country, Germany, because of this experience of East German refugees in the 80s."

The 10 people burst into the Japanese Embassy compound shouting "North Korea, North Korea." Embassy officials confirms they were carrying U.N. refugee agency papers identifying them as North Koreans.

It is the first reported incident of North Koreans seeking asylum at a diplomatic mission in Thailand. Most similar incidents have occurred in China, and many of them have been organized by Dr. Vollertsen and his associates.

He pointed out that the 10 who surfaced Thursday are just one of several groups smuggled out of North Korea recently.

"I have been in Thailand several times with exactly those activists who are responsible for this action now," he said. "And we were thinking about the Japanese Embassy there for a long, long time. And finally they succeeded."

Dr. Vollertsen, who worked providing emergency medical aid in North Korea for 18 months, said it has becoming increasingly harder to slip people into Western embassies in Beijing. So the anti-Pyongyang activists resurrected an underground smuggling route.

"After we realized that the Western embassies in Beijing are very highly protected now, they are looking more like a fortress than anything else, so we followed our old approach, and that is an underground railroad, mainly throughout Mongolia, but also to Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, he said. "Thailand was an old target because there is a South Korean Embassy, which is quite cooperative and quite sympathetic."

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said Thursday the North Koreans could be deported. But he appears to have backtracked, saying Japan could grant them asylum. He added that if they want to stay in Thailand, then the government will investigate how, and where, they came into the country.