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N. Korea Refugees Must Seek Asylum Through Proper Channels, say US, Thailand

The United States and Thailand say North Korean refugees seeking political asylum must go through appropriate channels. The responses came a day after human rights activists dramatically presented four people at a Bangkok news conference who claimed they were North Koreans seeking asylum in the United States.

The human rights activists have been responsible for helping hundreds of North Koreans force their way into diplomatic missions, mainly in China but most recently in Bangkok, in search of asylum.

They called a news conference Tuesday saying they would discuss the situation of North Korean refugees in general, then surprised everyone by introducing four people they introduced as North Korean asylum-seekers.

The North Koreans were whisked away after the news conference, and the activists said they were being kept in a "safe house" until they received a reply from U.S. officials.

A U.S. embassy spokesperson Wednesday told VOA the United States did not think press conferences and political demonstrations were the proper way to ensure the well-being of North Korean refugees.

The spokesman said the would-be refugees could request asylum in the United States only through proper channels.

Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor based in South Korea, said his aim in staging the dramatic news conference was to draw world attention to the plight of North Koreans.

Dr. Vollersten helped 10 North Koreans sneak into the Japanese embassy in Bangkok last July. They were granted political asylum in South Korea three weeks later.

Dr. Vollertsen is part of a network of activists that has helped hundreds of North Koreans seek asylum at diplomatic missions in several Chinese cities.

He said he hoped to create an exodus of North Koreans that could lead to the fall of the Stalinist North Korean government, similar to the collapse of the former East Germany after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Beijing has been reinforcing security to keep intruders out of diplomatic missions in China. Father John Woodrow, another member of the activist network, said other countries now must help. "There really needs to be a recognition of the situation that the refugees face and we would be hoping that the Thai government would consider setting up camps, processing centers," said Father Woodrow.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow said Thailand has no intention of setting up camps for North Korean refugees, and anyone seeking asylum must go through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

"We don't think Thailand should be a sort of staging area for asylum seekers, and also such matters have to be coordinated through the UNHCR and not through this group of activists," said the spokesman.

The UNHCR said its policy was not to comment on the matter. However, the commission has a long-standing but little-known system in place to help North Korean refugees who enter Thailand to gain political asylum in South Korea.