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Government ponders fate of North Korean defectors

Government ponders fate of North Korean defectors

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

situation."

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

the top."

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

by Cambodia.

"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

arrested enroute.

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.

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