Page last updated at 11:24 GMT, Thursday, 1 January 2009

Burma frees North Korean refugees

North Korean refugees in Bangkok, Thailand, October 2006
North Koreans refugees usually seek asylum in South Korea

The Burmese authorities have released 19 North Korean refugees at the border with Thailand, a South Korean diplomat has said.

The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the move would pave the way for their travel to South Korea.

The Burmese government had detained the 19 refugees for a month on charges of illegal entry.

Instead of being jailed or deported, the refugees will now stay in a Thai detention centre.

Refugee supporters had feared the Burmese government might have sent the refugees back to North Korea.

But the group - which includes 15 women and a seven-year old boy - now have a chance of a new life.

They had been arrested on 2 December as they were trying to cross from Burma into Thailand.

Dangerous escape

Many North Koreans who have managed the dangerous escape from North Korea into China in the past have often travelled southward, undetected.

Thailand does not formally recognise asylum seekers as refugees, but has pursued a policy of allowing for their care by international refugee groups in Thailand pending resettlement in third countries.

Officials in Burma, who rarely speak to the press, were not available for comment, and the Immigration Department in Bangkok, Thailand, said they had not heard of the transfer yet.

Thousands of people have fled North Korea in recent years, and at least 14,000 of them have found their way to asylum in South Korea.

Burma's response to this group of North Koreans was thought to be unpredictable as the country had been working quietly to normalise relations with North Korea since diplomatic ties were restored in 2007.

Burma had severed relations with North Korea in 1983 following a bombing in Rangoon by North Korean secret agents which targeted former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan.

He was unhurt, but 21 people were killed and Burma was outraged at the offence mounted on its soil.

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