North Korean defector leaves for US from Southeast Asian county

SEOUL, South Korea: A North Korean defector has departed for the United States, becoming the latest refugee to be accepted by America under a 2004 law, a South Korean activist said Wednesday.

The woman in her late 20s flew to the United States from an unidentified Southeast Asian country earlier in the day, Rev. Chun Ki-won, who helps North Korean defectors' gain asylum in the U.S., told The Associated Press by telephone from the U.S.

The latest refugee brings to 31 the number of North Koreans accepted in the U.S. since 2004 when U.S. President George W. Bush signed the North Korean Human Rights Act, which mandates assistance to refugees fleeing the North, according to Chun, who heads the Seoul-based missionary group Durihana Mission.

The woman, who was not identified, escaped the North to China in 2002 but was returned home by Chinese authorities in 2004. She fled again to China the next year and made her way to a Southeast Asian country, Chun said.

As a key ally of the North, China views North Korean defectors as "economic migrants," not refugees, and is obligated to repatriate them under a bilateral treaty. Activists claim tens of thousands of North Koreans live in hiding in China.

Some of them take a long and risky land journey to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and other southeast Asian countries on their way to asylum, mostly to South Korea.

But some defectors in China and other Southeast Asian countries hope to go to the U.S. since the country began accepting North Korean refugees.

The U.S. has said it would accept about 50 North Korean defectors living in Thailand if they meet certain criteria, but the process is being delayed due to the lack of cooperation by the South Korean government, Chun said, citing an unnamed official in the U.S. State Department.

Washington has said that North Koreans who had already settled in South Korea would not be eligible for asylum in the U.S.

As a result, the U.S. had asked South Korea to confirm that the defectors in Thailand had not previously lived in South Korea. To do this, the U.S. obtained the defectors' fingerprints and sent them to South Korea for identification, but Seoul has yet to respond, Chun said.

South Korea's Foreign and Unification Ministries said they could not immediately confirm there had been such a request.

Christopher Hill, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, plans to renew Washington's request, Chun said, citing the State Department official.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul was not immediately available for comment.

Separately, Chun said some North Korean defectors held in a Thai immigration facility complained of skin diseases as they have been staying in a cramped detention center that accommodates about 500 North Koreans — roughly twice normal capacity.

A South Korean official handling the issue at South Korean Embassy in Bangkok was not immediately available for comment.



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