The arrest of seven North Korean asylum seekers in Cambodia has left the government
weighing up its responsibilities under international laws on refugees against its
traditional close relationship with the repressive communist state.
"We're talking with immigration police and the royal palace," said Khieu
Kanarith, government spokesperson and Minister of Information. "We're in a difficult
Five males and two females were arrested in Phnom Penh on September 5 after allegedly
fleeing North Korea and travelling through China and Vietnam, according to media
reports that emerged on September 22.
The government would not say whether it planned to deport the asylum seekers or allow
them to apply for refugee status, but is expected to come under heavy pressure from
China and North Korea to send them back.
"I heard that the government would return the refugees to North Korea,"
said a government source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
King Norodom Sihanouk was a close friend of North Korean leader Kim Il sung and still
maintains intimate ties with Pyongyang. He has a palace there where he spent several
months earlier this year. Sihanouk also owns a property in Phnom Penh that is currently
occupied by the North Korean embassy.
It is not known whether the asylum seekers are carrying any identification or travel
permits, but even if they entered Cambodia illegally the UN legislation on refugee
rights allows them "a reasonable period and all the necessary facilities to
obtain admission into another country."
A Phnom Penh-based diplomat said a clear picture of the situation was yet to emerge
and that the Cambodian authorities were "waiting for some instructions from
As the Post went to press, the government had not contacted the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but the agency was standing by to consider asylum
requests, a right granted under the 1951 Convention on the rights of refugees, signed
"If they do get referred to us we will facilitate their processing," said
Cathy Shin, station officer at the UNHCR.
It is understood the North Koreans were being held at the Immigration Police station,
opposite Pochentong Airport, 5 kms west of Phnom Penh.
Minister of Interior spokesman, Khieu Sopheak, immigration police chief, Keat Chanthirith
and the Prime Minister's advisor on human rights, Om Yen Tieng either did not answer
or hung up their phones when contacted by the Post.
Lee Jae-Kwan, first secretary at the South Korean embassy said he did "not know
any information" except what he'd heard on media and that he was not sure who
was assigned to deal with the issue.
Staff at the North Korean embassy also declined to comment.
While there have been reports of defectors being smuggled through Cambodia in the
past, this is believed to be the first time North Koreans have been picked up and
At least 220 North Koreans were waiting in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand to finish
their journey fleeing the grim Stalinist state, according to a statement from the
Commission to Help North Korean Refugees in January.
In late July, 468 North Koreans who had escaped to an unidentified Southeast Asian
country, were flown to South Korea in the largest mass defection since the end of
the Korean War in 1953.
Activists who claimed to be assisting the 468 asylum seekers identified the country
as Vietnam but Hanoi has refused to comment.