Pastor Peter Jung, who helps North Koreans escape their country to begin a new life in South Korea, told the Voice Of America (VOA) network that especially the women defectors are "suffering the most" under alleged squalid conditions.
He said the holding facility was "hell" as 314 women have been sharing one or two working toilets. "The Thai heat, and sanitary problems, are creating a range of health dangers for the women," he reportedly said.
Civic activists in Seoul said the group of North Korean hunger strikers in Thailand include 100 men and more than 300 women. Jung told VOA that the hunger strike began late Tuesday, April 24, to protest "several months of delays by the South Korean government in helping them reach Seoul."
Under South Korean law, North Korean defectors are automatically granted citizenship and government assistance in resettling. Over 10,000 North Korean defectors now live here, the majority of them having fled the North over the past 10 years to escape severe food scarcity and political and religious repression. Many refugees don’t make it to South Korea, as neighboring China sends many refugees back to North Korea, despite international concerns they may be tortured or even killed after their arrival in the isolated Communist nation.
Many among the North Korean refugees are Christians, human rights groups say. Netherlands-based Open Doors, an influential human rights group supporting Christians persecuted for their faith, said recently North Korea is once again number one on its 2006 World Watch List of over 50 nations with the "worst" religious freedom violations.
"In 2006 an increasing number of Christians were detained and many Christian refugees who were repatriated from China were tortured and even killed," the group said.
North Korea’s Stalinist system of carrying out Communism is based on "total devotion" of the individual to an ideology promoted by the late leader Kim Il Sung and his successor and son, Kim Jong Il, according to observers who visited the isolated nation. Christianity is seen as a threat. North Korean authorities have denied wrongdoing and say the North Korean people love to serve the isolated country’s "dear leader."
Open Doors estimates there are up to 70,000 Christians in labor camps, although other observers have said that figure may be even higher. VOA quoted South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon as saying Wednesday, April 25, that Seoul is "taking steps" to deal with the hundreds of detained North Korean refugees in Thailand seeking repatriation to South Korea.
The minister said South Korea is "in active discussions with the Thai government" and asked "understanding" that he was unable to go into detail about the talks. Analysts say the issue of North Korean defectors comes at a difficult time when South Korea seeks to improve economic and diplomatic cooperation with Pyongyang.
In a separate case, activist groups said Wednesday, April 25, that South Korea assumed custody of three teenage North Korean defectors in Laos. The teenagers drew media attention with written pleas for assistance last month to a Japanese human rights group. South Korean authorities declined to confirm or deny the reports, VOA said. (With BosNewsLife Monitoring and reports from Bangkok an Seoul).