YANGON, Burma – Burmese authorities arrested 19 North Korean defectors in a town near the border with Thailand, a government official said Saturday.
The arrests were made two weeks ago in Tachilek, a border town about 340 miles northeast of Yangon, the country's largest city, the official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
The detainees, including children and elderly women, will likely be tried for illegally entering the country, the official said.
"North Korean defectors usually travel though China to countries such as Burma — also called Myanmar — Laos, and Thailand" before making their way to South Korea, said a diplomat from the South Korean embassy, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing protocol.
The detainees could face two to three years in prison if they are charged with illegal entry, he said, adding that a request by the embassy to visit them has not been granted.
Thousands of people have fled North Korea in recent years, citing hunger and harsh political oppression. Many escape taking a risky land journey through China to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries before seeking asylum in South Korea, which is home to nearly 14,000 North Korean defectors.
Burma severed relations with North Korea in 1983 following a bombing in Yangon by North Korean secret agents targeting former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan. He was unhurt, but 21 people were killed.
The two countries have been quietly working to normalize relations for the past few years, and agreed to resume diplomatic ties in April 2007.