Seoul seeking to create camps for N Korean refugees

AP , SEOUL

Wed, Oct 01, 2008 - Page 5

South Korea’s president has instructed officials to look into setting up regional refugee camps for the growing number of North Koreans fleeing the Stalinist nation, a ruling party lawmaker said yesterday.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who took office in February, has promised not to shy away from criticizing the North and recently asked his Chinese counterpart to cooperate on ensuring that defectors aren’t forced to return to the impoverished nation.

Lee ordered his government to quickly review ideas for setting up refugee camps — at least in Thailand — said an aide for Hong Jung-wook, a lawmaker from the ruling Grand National Party. Hong’s office said it obtained a transcript of Lee’s March directive from the Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs.

His orders mark a departure from South Korea’s previous two presidents, both liberals, who abstained from publicly raising the issue of North Korean defectors for fear of angering their northern communist neighbor as Seoul sought reconciliation with Pyongyang.

As a key ally of the North, China views North Korean defectors as “economic migrants,” not political refugees, and is obligated to repatriate them as required by a bilateral treaty.

Lee also instructed officials to consult with Mongolia and Russia on creating refugee zones there unless Beijing changes its policy.

South Korea’s Foreign and Unification Ministries yesterday declined to confirm whether Seoul was in talks with other countries, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

Thousands of people have fled North Korea in recent years, citing hunger and harsh political oppression. Many have escaped through a long and risky land journey through China to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries on their way to asylum. Most end up in South Korea, which now is home to nearly 14,000 North Korean defectors.