BANGKOK and SEOUL—Mothers of four North Korean children arrested in Burma as they tried to defect were already settled and waiting for them in South Korea, according to a woman with two children in the group.
A woman in South Korea who asked to be identified only as Kim said she was one of the mothers awaiting the arrival of her children. In an interview, she said her six- and 15-year-old children were among 19 North Koreans, who also include a 12-year-old girl, arrested Dec. 2 soon after they reached Burma.
Kim said she had traveled to the Burmese border and asked to visit her children but authorities refused her request. She also said that her own mother was arrested in China and deported to North Korea while trying to defect, while her two sisters were sold by human traffickers.
The 19 would-be defectors were fleeing poverty and repression in North Korea and trying to reach South Korea, through China and Southeast Asia, when they were intercepted by Burmese authorities. They are expected to face trial on immigration charges in Burma, authorities and relative have said.
“They were arrested when they entered over the border in eastern [Burma] in early December," a Burmese official was quoted as telling Agence France-Presse. “As they were arrested in our territory, we are taking action against them under the immigration act.”
The North Koreans, travelling by speedboat on Dec. 2, failed to slip into Thai waters in early December and steered toward neighboring Burma’s side of the Mekong river instead, Korean sources said.
They disembarked close to Tachilek, a border town about 340 miles (550 kms) northeast of Rangoon, and Burmese authorities quickly arrested them. They were taken to an immigration facility and then transferred to an urban detention center.
Officials said they will likely face between six and 12 months in jail, and they could be deported to North Korea once their sentences are completed.
The number of defectors crossing into Chiang Rai province in Thailand has surged in the last two months, Korean sources say.
An official with the South Korean embassy in Burma said South Korea had asked Burma to assess the situation of the 19 North Koreans and provide all possible assistance.
One civic group seeking to aid North Korean defectors said South Korean human rights lawyers, members of the Seoul Bar Association, have pledged to help the 19 North Koreans and plan to travel to the detention center in Burma if necessary.
Risky escape route
Thousands of people have fled North Korea in recent years, citing hunger and harsh political oppression. Many escape taking a risky land journey through China to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries before seeking asylum in South Korea, now home to nearly 14,000 North Korean defectors.
Many end up in Thailand, packing detention facilities. South Korea grants asylum to the North Koreans at a slower rate than they have been arriving, creating a bottleneck that has strained ties between Seoul and Bangkok.
Burma broke off relations with North Korea in 1983 following a bombing in Rangoon by North Korean secret agents targeting former South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan. He was unhurt, but 21 people were killed, including four Burmese officials and three South Korean government ministers.
The two countries have been quietly working to normalize relations for the past few years, and agreed to resume diplomatic ties in April 2007.
Original reporting by Lee Dong-Jun for RFA’s Korean service. Korean service director: Francis Huh. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.