The largest group of North Koreans ever smuggled into Thailand will be charged with illegal entry and face a court hearing to determine whether they will be deported, police said yesterday.
Police said that on Tuesday they arrested 175 North Koreans who fled from their homeland and were hiding in a house in a suburb of Bangkok.
Officers raided the house after receiving a tip-off from neighbors and took the 37 men, 128 women and 10 children into custody, police Colonel Songphol Wattanachai said.
The chief of immigration police, Lieutenant-General Suwat Tumrongsiskul, said the asylum seekers would be charged with illegal entry and their case taken before a court which would rule on whether they will be deported. If no country is willing to accept them, they will remain incarcerated in Thailand, according to Thai law.
"Police are also investigating the human smuggling gang who arranged the smuggling of these North Koreans into the country," Suwat said.
However, 16 members of the group had been granted refugee status by the Bangkok office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and are scheduled to leave for South Korea in a few days, Songphol said.
It was not immediately clear whether they also would be charged with illegal entry.
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said at a regular news briefing in Seoul that South Korea "will review steps to be taken in consultation with the Thai government" regarding the arrest of the North Koreans.
Ban said Seoul is trying to get a clear picture of the issue through its embassy in Thailand. He declined to give further details.
Songphol said the North Koreans had entered Thailand in separate groups through the northern province of Chiang Rai, and had been staying in the two-story house for the past two months.
"They are seeking asylum in a third country, preferably South Korea,"Songphol said, adding they were now being detained at the Thai police immigration center.
Meanwhile, news of the group's arrest received only a dismissive response from the North Korean embassy in Bangkok yesterday.
"No one has told us, so we don't know about it. We do not have information on this," a North Korean embassy official said.
"We will not go to immigration to see them. We have not been told about it," he added.
A UN official in Bangkok said privately it was "quite normal" for North Korean officials to shun their estranged compatriots.
"Either you are with them or you are against them. They [the North Korean authorities] can't really cope with people who think independently."
Thousands of North Koreans, facing hunger and repression in their homeland, have made their way abroad in recent years, many taking a long and risky land journey through China to arrive in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries. They usually seek asylum at the embassies of third countries, though many are believed to be in hiding.