On Thursday, some 420 North Korean refugees ended a three-day hunger strike at an immigration detention center in Bangkok. The hunger strike opened the question of [the South Korean] government's attitude in dealing with the North Korean refugee issue in Southeast Asia.
In the past two or three years, North Korean refugees hiding in China have rushed to Thailand, thousands of kilometers away, by way of Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, because crackdowns by the Chinese government blocked not only their path to foreign diplomatic missions in China but also their escape route to neighboring Mongolia.
The hunger strike raises concerns of a repeat of the situation in Vietnam three years ago. At the time, it was possible for refugees to travel to Vietnam from China and fly to South Korea. Refugees found out about this by word of mouth and rushed to Vietnam. When their number reached 468 at long last, it caused some conflict between South Korea and Vietnam. In the end, [the South Korean] government had no choice but to transport them belatedly to Seoul aboard a chartered airplane. But North Korea suspended inter-Korean relations in retaliation, and the Vietnamese route was closed.
The Thai route has therefore become the sole life line for North Korean refugees. And that life line could be severed at any moment unless everyone shares the responsibility.
In November 1999, seven North Korean refugees reached Vladivostok through the Sino-Russian border and asked the UNHCR to recognize them as refugees. Although the UN High Commissioner himself intervened, they were eventually deported to North Korea by way of China. It is a reality that nothing can be done for the refugees, even with UNHCR intervention, if the countries involved do not want to help.
The North Korean refugee issue, in short, is one that [the South Korean] government must resolve in coordination with all Southeast Asian countries.
The North Koreans detained in the Bangkok immigration detention camp [are kept] in a space where they can barely move. They don't have enough toothbrushes and soap. The hygiene problems, especially those of female refugees, are indescribable.
If direct support is difficult, the [South Korean] government should at least send them blankets, sanitary towels, tissue paper, toothpaste, toothbrushes and medicine through humanitarian organizations. If they were also distributed to other inmates, nobody would resent the North Koreans. The government should initiate programs to assist the poor in countries through which North Korean refugees travel -- Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma. Then those countries would treat our North Korean brothers and sisters with goodwill when they arrive there.
[Excerpt of a Chosun Ilbo column contributed by Benjamin Yoon, secretary-general of the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.]