Our eye was caught by a report in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo that increasing numbers of North Korean defectors are turning up in Thailand after fleeing the Stalinist state and making a dangerous clandestine journey across China and Laos. The paper quotes Thai immigration authorities as saying that they took more than 1,000 North Korean asylum seekers into custody last year, compared to fewer than 400 the year before, and expect the numbers to grow this year. Unlike China and Laos, Thailand does not repatriate North Korean refugees but seeks to settle them in a third-country. To put that number in to context, a new book on North Korean defectors estimates that some 15,000 have left the country since the end of the Korean War (1953), with the majority leaving in the past 10 years.
China has been taking a harder line on returning North Korean defectors since late 2008. After the arrests in North Korea last year of two American TV journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, authorities raided safe houses in China used by North Korean defectors and deported a South Korean Christian activist who helped them, part of a network that is said to have smuggled hundreds of defectors out of North Korea. We have also heard reports from Japan of several asylum seekers who have taken sanctuary in Japanese and South Korean diplomatic missions in China being prevented from leaving the country as they once would have been allowed to do.