- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2007

SEOUL — About 400 North Korean defectors being held in a Thai detention center have begun a hunger strike with a demand to be sent to South Korea. The protest poses a potential new problem that could complicate international efforts to shut down Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

With North Korea acutely sensitive about defections to the South, the public attention sparked by the strike has introduced a new irritant into North-South relations just as Pyongyang is scheduled to shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon under a Feb. 13 multilateral agreement.

The reactor was to have been shut down by mid-April, but action has been delayed by a dispute over North Korean funds held at a bank in Macao. White House adviser Victor Cha was reported to have personally told North Korean officials in New York on Tuesday that the Bush administration is becoming frustrated by the delay.

A Seoul-based human rights group, the International Campaign to Block the Repatriation of North Korean Refugees, announced yesterday that 400 North Koreans had begun a hunger strike at a detention center for illegal aliens in Bangkok.

The defectors are protesting delays in the processing of their applications to travel to South Korea, said Lee Ho-taek, a spokesman for the civic group. He speculated that Thailand was dragging its feet so it won’t be seen as having a soft spot for illegal aliens.

Most of the refugees — 314 of whom are female — have been at the center for at least three months. It usually takes a maximum of three months to process applications to settle in South Korea, Mr. Lee said. Under South Korea’s constitution, North Korean defectors are guaranteed citizenship in the South.

“The situation in the detention center is terrible,” Mr. Lee said. “Over 300 women are packed into a center designed for 100. There are only one or two toilets; there are flies, heat and mosquitoes; and some defectors are suffering from fever and skin diseases.”

Mr. Lee said visits by a South Korean consul yesterday morning and a Thai official in the afternoon simply made the refugees angrier.

North Korean defections have seriously complicated North-South relations in the past, notably in July 2004 when 468 North Koreans were taken from Vietnam to South Korea in a secret airlift.

When news of the operation broke, a furious Pyongyang demanded the refugees’ return, accusing Seoul of “abduction and terrorism.” The communist state broke off all government-level contacts for months.

But while relief organizations criticize Seoul for not doing more to help would-be defectors, analysts underscore the delicacy of the balancing act Seoul is forced to maintain.

“The sad fact is that the human rights of a few are secondary to the overall improvement of relations with North Korea, especially at a time when there are major negotiations under way,” said Mike Breen, Seoul-based author of a biography of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

“To be fair to South Korea, their view of relations with North Korea is that, ultimately, reconciliation will lead to improved human rights for all.”

With the inter-Korean border heavily militarized, most defectors escape across North Korea’s border with China. The number of defectors hiding in China and other countries is estimated at between 100,000 and 300,000.

In recent years, many escapees have attempted to reach Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, because China forcibly repatriates those it finds to North Korea. Most defectors eventually seek to settle in South Korea.

Given North Korea’s population of 23 million, relatively few of its citizens have reached the South since the Korean War ended in 1953: The 10,000th one arrived in February.

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