Sunday, September 10, 2006

Swell of North Korean refugees could strain Thailand's tolerance

Nearly two months after fleeing his impoverished homeland, Lee Dong-soo could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Guided by Christian activists, he had traveled thousands of miles overland across China to a rented house in Bangkok. There he waited for a safe passage to South Korea and the promise of a new citizenship.

That dream is luring more North Koreans to Bangkok, putting a strain on Thailand's pattern of tolerance and quiet cooperation. Last month's raid pushed the total number of North Koreans detained so far this year above 400, up from 80 in 2005, raising concerns about a surge in arrivals.

Thailand is already home to large populations of displaced minorities from neighbors Laos and Burma, and Thai government officials are wary of becoming a magnet for more refugees who arrive via those countries.

Activists say the flow is unlikely to stop, as many North Koreans already in China are looking for a safe haven.

"They come to Thailand because it's one of only a few countries where they can seek asylum.... Thailand is probably the best country to go right now," says Chun Ki-won, a South Korean missionary who was jailed in China in 2001 for his work.

[Christian Science Monitor]

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