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U.S. calls for protection of N.K. refugees, asylum seekers after high-profile defection

2016/08/18 04:31

WASHINGTON, Aug. 17 (Yonhap) -- The United States on Wednesday called for protecting North Korean refugees and asylum seekers around the world after the No. 2 diplomat at the North's Embassy in Britain was confirmed to have defected to South Korea.

Thae Yong-ho, 55, minister at the North's mission in London, recently arrived in South Korea with his family, Seoul's Ministry of Unification announced earlier Wednesday without unveiling further details. He is one of the highest-ranking North Korean diplomats to defect to Seoul.

"We urge all countries to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers within their territories," State Department spokeswoman Katina Adams told Yonhap News Agency. "The United States remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation in North Korea and the treatment of North Korean refugees and asylum seekers.

She, however, declined comment on specifics of the North Korean diplomat's defection.

"We continue to work with other countries and international organizations, including the U.N. Human Rights Council and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to protect North Korean refugees and find durable solutions for them," Adams said.

South Korea said Thae is believed to have defected to Seoul due to his disillusionment with the North's regime under Kim Jong-un and aspiration for freedom. It also said that the case shows the North's ruling elites see no hope and the regime's internal solidarity is weakening.

North Korean officials and workers at foreign countries are hard pressed to repatriate money in the face of tougher international sanctions, and this is exerting considerable pressure.

In April, a group of 13 North Koreans who worked at a Pyongyang-run restaurant in the Chinese eastern port city of Ningbo defected to South Korea en masse. In June, three more North Korean restaurant employees working in China escaped to Seoul.