Hundreds of North Koreans who fled their country have begun a hunger strike in Thailand, where they are being held in custody. The North Koreans say they are upset by what they describe as delays by South Korean authorities in helping them immigrate to the South. In a separate case, South Korea has reportedly assumed custody of three North Korean teenagers in Laos. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin reports.

Civic activists here in Seoul say the group of North Korean hunger strikers in Thailand includes 100 men and more than 300 women.

Peter Jung, a Christian pastor who is active in helping North Koreans escape their country to begin a new life in South Korea, says the women defectors are suffering the most under squalid conditions.

Jung describes the holding facility as a kind of "hell," where 314 women share one or two working toilets. He says the Thai heat, and sanitary problems, are creating a range of health dangers for the women.

Jung says the hunger strike began Tuesday night, in protest at what the defectors describe as several months of delays by the South Korean government in helping them reach Seoul.

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 scarcity and political repression.

South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said Wednesday Seoul is taking steps to deal with the situation.

Song says South Korea is in active discussions with the Thai government. He asks for understanding that he is unable to go into detail at this time.

The issue of North Korean defectors is an extremely sensitive part of the inter-Korean relationship, which South Korea seeks to improve through economic and diplomatic cooperation with Pyongyang.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans are believed to be in China, making a dangerous and illegal journey to Southeast Asian nations in hopes of eventually reaching South Korea. China classifies North Korean defectors as economic migrants, not refugees. United Nations refugee organizations are refused access to the defectors, who are often sent home involuntarily to face severe punishment or execution.

In a separate case, activist groups say South Korea has assumed custody of three teenage North Korean defectors in Laos. The teenagers drew media attention with written pleas for assistance last month to a Japanese human rights group. South Korean authorities decline to confirm or deny the reports.