Hundreds of North Korean defectors ended a three-day hunger strike at an immigration detention center in Bangkok on Thursday. Most of the 100-odd men and 324 women detained at the Suan Phlu detention center went on hunger strike on Tuesday evening, demanding early departure for South Korea and improved conditions at the center.
The hunger strike reportedly ended when the detainees accepted assurances by the Thai immigration authorities that none of them would be deported to North Korea and they would soon leave for South Korea. The first group of 20-plus could fly to Seoul on Friday at the earliest.
The hunger strike was started by some 20 of the detainees, with most joining in. The refugees cite overcrowding at the facility, where 324 women were packed into a room with a capacity for 120. The North Koreans also complained about extremely poor hygienic conditions, saying two of the four toilets were broken for two months and drains did not work.
It remains to be seen what the international attention will mean for the Thai government's policy on North Korean defectors. With escape routes to South Korea through China blocked for more than two years, Thailand has emerged as the biggest window to the South for North Korean refugees. The numbers have jumped from 30-plus a month in the past to over 1,00 per month since the latter half of last year. Due to the considerable burden, the Thai authorities seem to have decided to put the brakes on the stream of refugees to South Korea.
But a senior South Korean diplomat at the scene notes that Thailand has more than 150,000 illegal immigrants accommodated in border refugee camps. "The Thai government traditionally places importance on human rights and is friendly in dealing with refugee issues. It will neither repatriate the North Korean defectors nor send them to third countries like China."
[The Chosun Ilbo]