ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
Myanmar may try North Korean refugees
Nineteen North Korean refugees, detained at a Myanmar border town early this month, were expected to be tried for illegal entry soon, Reuters quoted an official source as saying Sunday.
"They were arrested in Tachilek, a town on the Myanmar-Thai border about 600 kms (375 miles) northeast of Yangon, on December 2. Arrangements are underway to put them on trial for illegal entry," said an official source who declined to be identified.
"I should say they may get two or three years in jail. I just don't know for sure what will happen to them after that," he said, adding that 15 of the refugees were women.
Hundreds of North Koreans flee the hermit state every year, usually crossing into China and then on to a third country on their way to eventual asylum in South Korea, human rights groups say.
Many end up in Thailand, packing detention facilities. South Korea grants asylum to the North Koreans at a slower rate than they have been arriving, creating a bottleneck that has strained ties between Seoul and Bangkok.
South Korea was considering building refugee centers in Thailand, Mongolia and Russia to house North Koreans fleeing their homeland in search of asylum, according to documents seen by Reuters in September.
"North Koreans who had fled their country for economic reasons in the past were allowed to go to South Korea after serving jail terms here. But that was before Myanmar and North Korea restored ties," a Foreign Ministry official said. "It is a political issue. If North Korea does not intervene, they are more likely to be allowed to go to South Korea," the retired ministry official said.
"The North Korean embassy may not intervene if they have defected just for economic reasons," he said.
Myanmar severed its ties with North Korea in 1983 after a major bomb attack in Yangon, allegedly plotted by Pyongyang, against former South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan while he was on a state visit.
Seventeen South Korean officials in Chun's delegation, including cabinet ministers, were killed in the bomb attack at the Martyrs Mausoleum in Yangon.
The two countries restored diplomatic ties in April 2007. Since then, bilateral ties between the two isolated countries have improved, leading to a number of high-level exchanges of visits of their officials in 2008.
Myanmar's state-controlled media have blacked out reports of visits by senior military officials to North Korea this year.