BANGKOK, Sep 18 (Reuters) A refugee group accused Thailand today of deliberately mistreating hundreds of North Korean fugitives by keeping them in squalid and overcrowded detention cells for months to try to deter others from coming.
Immigration police denied the allegation and said they were doing all they could to provide decent accommodation for North Koreans awaiting transfer to South Korea, but admitted the main detention centre in the capital was overflowing.
''We've tried to improve the situation, but it's never going to be enough,'' police Lieutenant-Colonel Prawit Sirithorn told a North Korean human rights conference in Bangkok. ''It was never designed to accommodate this many people.'' Kim Sang-hun of the North Korean Human Rights Database Center said conditions were so bad one man called Kim Sang-hyon, a senior Pyongyang official who fled in March, had died in custody of a brain haemorrhage on August 8.
''There is little doubt that he could have been saved if proper medical attention was given,'' Kim said. He had obtained the information about two weeks ago from North Koreans who had reached Seoul, he added.
Prawit said the immigration detention centre had two medical units and adequate care was given to everyone. He could not immediately confirm details of Kim Sang-hyon's death.
HUNGER STRIKE China and then Thailand is fast becoming one of the main ''underground railway'' routes out of Kim Jong-il's totalitarian state, with police along the northern Thai borders with Laos and Myanmar picking up as many as 60 fugitives a month.
They are all arrested and charged with illegal entry. A short prison sentence normally ensues, but then they have to wait many months in immigration detention before being sent to a third country, normally South Korea.
Much of the delay - and the backlog it causes - stems from Seoul's reluctance to airlift North Koreans en masse because of fears it will upset its delicate relationship with its nuclear-armed northern neighbour, refugee experts say.
Flying 468 of them from Vietnam in 2004 infuriated Pyongyang, and six months later, Seoul said it would never do it again.
Kim criticised Thailand for arresting fugitives, saying it was out of step with Russia, Mongolia, Myanmar or any other country that admitted North Koreans.
''Here in Thailand, the only country where they are arrested and detained, refugees suffer the most,'' he said, adding that around 30 per cent of those who made it to South Korea last year came via the Southeast Asian nation.
North Koreans being held in Bangkok launched a hunger strike in April over conditions at the detention centre.
More than 300 women, including babies, children and the sick and elderly, were crammed into cells sufficient only for 50-100 people and with only four toilets between them, Kim said.
The treatment reflected an apparent policy decision by Thailand's military-appointed government to try to stem the flow of refugees entering the country, he said.
''I am concerned about the hardening attitude of some Thai government authorities towards North Korean refugees,'' he said.
''These officials seem to believe that they can deter the number of arrivals of North Koreans in Thailand by making them suffer.'' Reuters ARB GC1649