An Open Letter to Ambassador Lee Tae-Shik on the 169 Refugees Held in Thailand

Click for caption and source.[Update: Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon is promising to take “appropriate measures,” which is encouraging in a vague sort of way. Foreign diplomats also sound optimistic. I infer that this was an underground railroad operation, and get the distinct idea that it was betrayed from within, as I also suspect in the case of a previous operation in Laos. Note also that various reports count as many as 179 refugees, most of them women and kids.

Separately, Yonhap reports a big spike in defections from the North this year. With the food situation worsening, expect that to continue.]

By separate mail, I invited Ambassador Lee to respond, promising to print his complete response, unedited. Keep watching for updates.

Your Excellency,

According to a new report, 169 North Koreans — who are citizens of your country under Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic of Korea Constitution — are under arrest in Thailand. Unless your country accepts them, they may be sent back to North Korea. If they are sent back, they will be sent to concentration camps or shot.

I ask because in the past, your government has expressed a policy of not accepting large numbers of North Korean refugees. I specifically refer you to an interview by ex-Unification Minister Chung Dong Young in OhMyNews, which I link with comment here. I quote:

[T]he government clearly opposes organized defections. For the people in the North to live their lives in the North with their families is necessary both for individuals and for co-existence and co-prosperity. The policies of reconciliation and cooperation call for humanitarian aid to the North along with strengthening of economic cooperation, and continuous pursuit of North Korea’s participation in the international community. . . . With this in mind, it is not desirable for anyone to organize defections, intentionally bringing people out of North Korea. In particular, this runs counter to the government’s policy of co-existence and co-prosperity. . . . [Incidents like last summer’s mass airlift of defectors] have been unfortunate from the point of the total interests of the Korean people.

Is your government aware of this situation? Will it allow these Korean citizens, including dozens of women and children, to be sent back to their deaths in North Korea? Do you believe that you could defend this under your country’s Constitution, or under the U.N. Convention on Refugees?

The Korean Embassy’s Web form, which didn’t work for me, is here. The Thai Embassy is here. You may want to remind them that the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea is one of their country’s most distinguished legal scholars, Vitit Muntarbhorn. Dr. Muntarbhorn calls North Koreans hiding in third countries “refugees sur place,” meaning that the 1951 Convention forbids sending them back to North Korea.

It will be interesting to see how much attention the lives of 169 innocent people fleeing persecution get from the Human Rights Industry.


  1. There is an update of this story as of Wednesday that has some good news.

    If the court rules they entered illegally, they will be deported, Suwat said. However, they will not be forced to return to North Korea and authorities will consult with humanitarian organizations to determine where they should be sent, he said.

    U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said her agency considers the 175 North Koreans “people of concern,” and that 16 of them are scheduled to go to South Korea.

    “We are in consultation with the Thai government, and we hope to find a humane solution for all 175 people,” McKinsey said. “The Thai government has an excellent humanitarian record, and we have no reason to think that they are going to deport these people.”

    In Seoul, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said South Korea “will review steps to be taken in consultation with the Thai government” regarding the arrest of the North Koreans. Ban told a regular news briefing Seoul is trying to get a clear picture of the issue through the South Korean Embassy in Thailand.

    I hope all the refugees can go to a safe country, whether it’s South Korea, the US, or elsewhere. Some European countries have also accepted NK refugees.

    The Thai government is nicer to NK refugees than other SE Asian countries such as Vietnam. One reason may be the influence of Vitit Muntarbhorn, as Joshua has mentioned. Thailand also seems to be a more open and friendly country than the neighboring countries. Koreans should be grateful to Thailand.


  2. Ban Ki-moon’s credibility as a candidate for the UN Secretary-General will depend on how he helps NK refugees as well as being effective on other NK issues.


  3. Mi-Hwa, We tend agree on almost nothing, but I heartily agree with and appreciate both of those comments.