After spending nearly three weeks in Cambodian police custody, seven North Korean defectors fleeing their reclusive Stalinist country were quietly sent to the South Korean capital of Seoul last week, according to media reports.
The seven, including two women and a 14-year-old boy, arrived in Seoul on Friday, Agence France-Presse reported, citing South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. The South Korean-based Chosun Ilbo newspaper also reported that the group had arrived in Seoul and was under the protection of the South Korean intelligence agency.
A senior Cambodian government official confirmed the reports Sunday, as did two police officials, but they declined to be named and refused to elaborate, saying the group’s transfer to South Korea was a “sensitive” issue.
The group of defectors were taken in by immigration police on Sept 5 after they were found in Phnom Penh’s Hun Sen park, immigration police and Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said last week.
The defectors were believed to have entered Cambodia illegally through Vietnam.
But just as secretively as they entered the country, details of their departure were kept under tight wraps on Sunday.
Kiet Chantharith, head of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, referred all questions to Meach Sophana, the secretariat director. Meach Sophana said he had no information about the case.
Repeated calls to Khieu Sopheak were unsuccessful Sunday.
Officials at the North Korean Embassy and the South Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh also denied any knowledge of the defectors’ whereabouts.
Observers have said that the government is keeping tight-lipped about the issue out of fear of embarrassing Cambodia’s ally, North Korea.
King Norodom Sihanouk is known to be a close friend of top leaders of the isolated country. The King has spent several months this year at his palace in North Korea.
In August, Kim Yong Il, North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs, carried out a diplomatic visit to Cambodia “to promote bilateral cooperation,” Hem Heng, a press officer at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, said at the time. During his visit, Kim Yong Il met with Senate President Chea Sim and Long Visalo, the ministry’s secretary of state.
Kim Yong Il’s visit to Cambodia closely followed the July mass defection of more than 460 North Koreans, who found refuge in Seoul.
Following the mass defection, North Korea accused South Korea of a “planned kidnapping” and being guilty of a “terror crime.”
That operation was carried out in two separate airlifts from a Southeast Asian country, the name of which officials did not disclose, apparently to protect it from diplomatic retribution from North Korea. Some news reports later identified it as Vietnam.