By John Ruwitch
HANOI (Reuters) – Nine North Koreans entered Denmark’s embassy in Hanoi Thursday, seeking political asylum after leaving their impoverished and isolated country in search of food and freedom, activists and a group statement said.
“I sent nine North Koreans to the embassy, accompanied by other South Korean activists,” said Kim Sang-heon, a South Korean activist who helps North Koreans defect. “They are seeking asylum.”
Danish Foreign Ministry spokesman Ole Brix Andersen said Denmark was working with Vietnamese authorities “to find a safe and dignified solution.”
“We will not send them back to an uncertain destiny,” he said. The Foreign Ministry declined to confirm the number.
More than 16,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, almost all in the past 10 years, according to the South’s Unification Ministry.
More people are attempting to flee the North due to a worsening economy, with brokers and activists becoming more skilled in helping them.
A statement that the asylum seekers carried into the embassy Thursday said the nine — a couple, a mother and daughter and five individuals — had fled North Korea at separate times from different locations “in search of food and freedom from oppression,” according to a copy seen by Reuters.
“Some of us were caught by Chinese police and were then subjected to forced deportation to North Korea. After repatriation, some of us endured months of detention in North Korea that can only be described as atrocious,” it said.
“We are now at the point of such desperation and live in such fear of persecution within North Korea that we have come to the decision to risk our lives for freedom rather than passively await our doom.”
ESCAPE VIA CHINA
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry would not comment on the incident. The South typically refrains from speaking about asylum bids by North Korean defectors.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry did not have an immediate comment.
North Korean defectors mostly come from the poorest parts of the destitute state and usually flee over a sparsely patrolled border with China. They then seek passage to the South via a third country because Beijing sees them as economic refugees and forcibly repatriates North Koreans.
The most frequently used jumping-off point has been Thailand but North Korean defectors have also tried to gain entry to diplomatic missions in China, Vietnam, Laos and Mongolia in order to ultimately get asylum in South Korea.
A statement by the groups that helped these nine said they expected them to proceed eventually to South Korea.
Vietnam tries to keep good relations with both South Korea, a big source of investment, and North Korea, an ideological ally.
In 2004, Seoul airlifted 468 North Koreans from Vietnam, infuriating Pyongyang. Six months later, South Korea announced it would never attempt a large-scale refugee rescue again.