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  5. Destination Thailand: The Case of North Korean Asylum Seekers

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FOCUS June 2007 Volume 48

Destination Thailand: The Case of North Korean Asylum Seekers

Heidi Han*

* Heidi Han is a human rights defender based in Bangkok, Thailand.

Thailand has become a transit destination for North Korean asylum seekers. On 22 August 2006, Thai authorities arrested one hundred seventy-five North Koreans in Bangkok. To show that they were keen on enforcing the law against illegal crossing of Thai borders, the Thai authorities immediately brought charges against them in court. Having been found guilty by the court, they were jailed for failing to pay the fines. Despite the threat of imprisonment, North Koreans prefer to cross the porous Thai border. The number of North Korean asylum seekers is expected to increase as the international sanctions against the North Korean government continue to loom

Those who decide to undertake the journey towards Thailand are not certain of their future although they know it is a little more hopeful than the journey towards China. One thing they are sure of is that, for the time being, the Thai government cannot push them back after crossing the border. According to a church-based non-governmental organization (NGO) in Thailand, once the asylum seekers reach the Thai border, they cannot be pushed back since North Korea is more than 7,000 kilometers away. Most North Koreans turn themselves in willingly to the police fully aware that they will be taken cared by humanitarian groups and by the South Korean government. However, the journey to the Thai border is a different story. During the long trail, some are kidnapped by human traffickers, and are forced to pay high costs to be able to slip through the Thai border. Human traffickers profit from the trade, taking an upfront payment (which can be as high as $10,500 per person).[1]

A North Korean asylum seeker detained in the immigration detention center in Bangkok explained that many chose Thailand not only because of tighter Chinese patrol, but also because Vietnam, Laos, and Burma recently enforced stricter border patrol. She said that until a few years ago, Vietnam was considered to be the most accessible transit country for North Koreans. But this perception has changed

The change of perception and plans led more North Korean asylum seekers to Thailand that put the Thai government in a dilemma. While it still accepts those crossing its border, and allows international organizations to provide assistance to them, the growing number of asylum seekers pouring in will strain Thailand's limited resources and personnel. It may find pushing the North Korean asylum seekers back to Laos and Burma, which will ultimately lead to their deportation, a viable option. The South Korean government and the UNHCR have stepped in, without a concerted international effort, to address the issue and ensure the protection of the North Korean asylum seekers

Problem of detention

At the moment, the Thai government is sensitive to the concern of the international community about the mistreatment of North Koreans. With international attention focused on the actions of the Thai government since the military coup, any harsh response against the asylum seekers will invite condemnation by the United Nations and NGOs. Yet, in April 2007, over four hundred North Korean asylum seekers went on a hunger strike at a detention center in Bangkok. "They are angry at extended delays in bringing them to the South [Korea]," according to Lee Ho-Taeg of the International Campaign to Block the Repatriation of North Korean Refugees.[2] The North Korean asylum seekers on hunger strike were part of a group that was supposed to leave for South Korea, but held up for three months.[3] In addition to the one hundred asylum seekers waiting to leave, four hundred more North Korean asylum seekers joined the hunger strike, in hopes of better treatment in the detention center

The hunger strike became a protest not only against the delayed response of the international community to the plight of asylum seekers, but also the harsh living conditions in the detention center. The center, built for one hundred people, holds over four hundred detainees. And three hundred of them are women who are forced to share one toilet

The UNHCR appealed to the Thai government to address the conditions in the detention center. The South Korean government, on the other hand, held closed-door negotiations with the Thai government on the issue. A resolution of the issue was subsequently announced, ending the hunger strike. But both governments failed to elaborate or provide details on their agreement. The South Korean government justified the secret negotiations to avoid NGOs from taking action that would provoke the North Korean government into enforcing stricter control over its citizens, which it believed would not help the asylum seekers

One newspaper[4] reported that "For whatever the reason, the South Korean government is not bringing these refugees who have been waiting for release even though the procedures have been finalized and the airplane tickets have been obtained." NGOs believed, on the other hand, that about twenty North Korean asylum seekers would be granted passage to a third country per month under the agreement, which they found inadequate since the detention center was a virtual prison. One newspaper said that the asylum seekers were "dying a slow death inside."[5]

International response and enhanced capacity for protection

With predictions of worsening economic conditions and an upcoming famine, the international community must at least provide assistance to strengthen the capacity of the few facilitators and assistance providers in helping those choosing to cross the Thai border.[6]

The international community has to deplore the situation in North Korea that caused thousands of North Koreans to flee. At the same time, the international community must also urge the Thai authorities not to repatriate the North Korean refugees, since they and their families will face dire consequences.   Indeed, Thailand, in view of its "long tradition of hospitality towards refugees" and as a "responsible member of the international community" must seek a solution by sending the asylum seekers to a third country of their choice after their 30-day jail sentence expires

Countries willing to take in the North Korean asylum seekers should at the earliest opportunity announce their intention to do so to prevent asylum seekers from being kept in detention longer than necessary

For further information please contact: Heidi Han,


1. Simon Montlake, "Swell of North Korean refugees could strain Thailand's tolerance," Christian Science Monitor, September 2006

2. "NKorea refugees on hunger strike in Thailand", AFP, April 2007

3. Based on statement of Ms. Kitty McKinsey, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees

4. Kim Song-A, "400 Defectors on a Hunger Strike Requesting Relocation to South Korea", Daily NK, 26 April 2007

5. Quoted from Peter Jung (Seoul-based Humanitarian Worker) of Justice for North Korea and also in " North Korean refugees in Thailand reach asylum deal", Reuters, 27 April 2007

6. Yonhap, a South Korean news agency, amplified the need for coordinated international efforts in response to the hunger strike by reporting that "Activists claim that 622 North Korean defectors were arrested since 2003 at the checkpoint of Mae Sai in northern Thailand. Of those, 367 entered the country illegally last year." " Four hundred N. Korean defectors go on hunger strike in Thailand: activists", Yonhap News Agency, 25 April 2007.