SEOUL—A group of North Korean defectors trying to flee through Laos across the Mekong River has been apprehended and placed in an immigration detention center in northern Thailand, according to an authoritative source there.
The group of 42 is the largest detained by Thai police officers this year. They crossed the Mekong River from Laos and were detained Oct. 21, the Thai source, who asked not to be named, said in an interview.
“It has been confirmed that they are currently being held at an immigration detention facility in Shinsen, Chiang Rai province,” the source said.
A crackdown on North Korean defectors in China has intensified recently, causing the defectors to flee the country via Laos.
Between January and September this year, 190 North Korean defectors were imprisoned at the Thai immigration detention facility in Chiang Rai.
In October, a total of 60 North Korean defectors were detained in Thailand, marking a steep increase in the number of those attempting to cross the Thai border.
One expert believes that the reason for the increased number of river crossings by North Korean defectors is the decreasing water level of the Mekong River.
On Oct. 13, a 20-year-old woman and a 35-year-old man—both North Korean defectors—were arrested on a bus in Chiang Rai province, according to a report by local Thai broadcasters.
Sources inside Thailand disclosed that a 61-year-old woman and two 35-year-old men were arrested on a bus Oct. 27.
Three other North Korean defectors were also apprehended on a bus on Oct. 28, the sources said.
Thai police suspect that 10 more North Korean defectors have gone into hiding.
Crackdown in China
Authorities in northeastern China have stepped up controls in recent months on North Korean refugees living illegally on the Chinese side of the border, according to aid workers in the region.
The crackdown, marked by a heavier police presence and more detentions, began in July, according to several witnesses who work with the large number of North Koreans living in the area.
China has stepped-up security throughout the country around major celebrations held earlier this month to mark the 60th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party rule, following a series of deadly ethnic clashes.
Western diplomats and rights groups estimate the number of North Koreans living in China at anywhere from tens of thousands to several hundred thousand, including a large number of women trafficked into China as “brides” or sex workers.
Nearly all North Korean defectors flee poverty and malnutrition initially to neighboring China, where they learn about life in other countries.
Some 16,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea, most in the last decade.
Fewer than 100 have ended up in the United States, despite passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which aimed to expedite the processing of North Korean refugees.
A time of growing food shortages and a decline in international food aid has forced many North Koreans to flee the country and defect.
But despite tough economic times, North Korean authorities have begun targeting women in a crackdown on private markets, cutting off a crucial supply of food and income.
According to U.N. human rights rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn, women under 49 are now prohibited from engaging in trade, which reports say has led to clashes with authorities.
The North Korean regime has shuttered the country's largest wholesale market and has directed the population to purchase most food items directly from state-run stores.
Pyongyang also plans to prohibit small-patch farming this year, Muntarbhorn said this week in Washington.
But North Korea now faces decreased food aid after the United Nations leveled sanctions against Pyongyang following a series of missile tests and a nuclear test earlier this year.
The U.N. World Food Program was forced to shrink aid coverage to North Korea to 2 million people from 6 million as originally planned.
Original reporting by Heejung Yang for RFA’s Korean service. Korean service director: Insop Han. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes.