08/24/2006, 00.00
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Bangkok "frees" 175 North Korean refugees to go to South Korea

by Theresa Kim Hwa-young

They were arrested because they were illegal immigrants. Now they have refugee status. Seoul is keeping a low profile not to irritate Pyongyang, but it will probably accept the refugees.

Seoul (AsiaNews) – Thailand yesterday accepted to release 175 North Korean illegal immigrants detained in Bangkok's immigration office to allow them to go to South Korea, instead of forcing them return to the north of the peninsula.

Gen. Suwat Tumrongsiskul, chief of Thailand's immigration police, said they "were arrested because they crossed the border illegally. However we have decided to grant them political refugee status and so we will protect them until they leave for a third country."

So far, Seoul has opted to keep a low profile about the matter and has said it wants to tackle it only through diplomatic channels, not to irritate the regime led by Kim Jong-il. In 2004, the South Korean government accepted 460 North Koreans coming from Vietnam, sparking chaos of controversy and official protests from Pyongyang.

Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said "the situation could not get any worse". He explained: "The Korean peninsula has two cancerous issues - the nuclear question and the missile launches undertaken by Pyongyang on 14 July. I don't think cross-border relations could get any worse than that."

Aside from the 175 people ready to leave, there are another 95 North Koreans in Thailand, who have already asked for refuge with NGOs or the US Embassy: 30 have asked to go to the US.

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