North Korea's underground railroad to Thailand

Posted in Koreas | 10-Nov-06 | Author: Bertil Lintner| Source: Asia Times

A North Korean soldier patrols the truce village of Panmunjom.

CHIANG RAI, Thailand - In mid-October, North Koreans Kim He-shim, Kim Su-ok, Lee He-yong and Lee Chol-yong crossed the Mekong River and landed somewhere near northernmost Thailand's river port of city of Chiang Saen. They were certainly not the first, nor the youngest, nor probably the last North Korean refugees to make the 5,000-kilometer-plus trip from North Korea to Thailand.

But they were definitely some of the youngest ever to have accomplished the journey unaccompanied by their parents or other adult relatives. The three girls - He-shim, He-yong and Su-ok - were 16, 15, and 14 years old respectively. Chol-yong was a boy of only nine years of age. The fact that such young children managed to reach Thailand after such a long and no doubt precarious journey through mainland China and mountainous Laos proves that an increasing number of genuine North Korean refugees are choosing to pay Chinese human-smuggling gangs to escort them to freedom.

Ten years ago, when North Koreans first began to flee their repressive, impoverished country in large numbers, desperate refugees often stormed and sought asylum in foreign embassies, consulates and international schools in Beijing and other Chinese cities. When the Chinese authorities stepped up security around all foreign missions, they headed instead for third countries contiguous to China. Until a few years ago, many made it to Mongolia, often helped by networks of South Korean church workers there and in China. But the border between those two countries is now heavily guarded and the journey through the Gobi Desert into Mongolia particularly arduous.

The next preferred escape route was through southern China into Vietnam. But after the Vietnamese allowed 468 North Korean refugees to be flown to South Korea in July 2004, border controls were substantially tightened. A few refugees still trickle into Myanmar, but that is viewed as an extremely dangerous route as it goes through militarized areas controlled by the United Wa State Army and other armed drug-trafficking groups. Through China, sparsely populated Laos and into Thailand is now the most widely used route for North Korean refugees, where human traffickers escort them through China and Laos, and South Korean church groups assist them after they've landed in Thailand.

In Thailand the refugees are treated as illegal immigrants, but it is not Thai policy to hand them over to North Korea, which notably does have an embassy in Bangkok. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group explains in a recent report: "While the [Thai] authorities are less then thrilled to receive the lion's share of North Koreans arriving in Southeast Asia, they have ruled out repatriation due to the number of countries and physical distance between Thailand and North Korea, humanitarian priorities and diplomatic concerns."

Thailand is in the caught-in-the-middle position as North Korea's third-largest foreign trade partner - after China and South Korea - as well as a staunch strategic ally to the United States. Thailand does not want the refugee issue to upset its growing economic ties with Pyongyang, but obviously cannot afford to antagonize the US or South Korea - an even larger bilateral trade and investment partner than North Korea - by treating the refugees harshly.

Well-worn route
The refugee route that begins with the Yalu and Tumen rivers that form the border between North Korea and China and eventually intersects Southeast Asia's Mekong River is now well established. And as more North Koreans who take the circuitous route are successfully resettled in South Korea, the number of refugees arriving in Thailand is growing fast. According to official Thai statistics, more than 400 illegal North Koreans have been detained so far this year, up significantly from the 80 nabbed in 2005.

The actual figure of North Korean asylum seekers passing through Thailand and on to South Korea could actually be much higher. In August, 175 North Koreans were found in a safe house in Bangkok, and on October 24 a further 86 were apprehended at another location on the outskirts of the Thai capital. A South Korean interpreter who helped Thai police interview the recent group of four young refugees estimates that as many as 1,000 North Korean refugees may have entered Thailand so far this year. Many are reportedly in hiding and waiting for the right moment to turn themselves over to the United Nations or the Thai authorities, the interpreter said.

To cope with the human influx, police stations in northern Thailand's Chiang Rai province have had to seek out more Korean speakers to help with translation. Some South Koreans living in and around Chiang Rai have been approached for linguistic assistance. Many young Thai men - especially from Chiang Rai and neighboring Phayao province - have worked stints overseas as laborers on South Korean farms and now also help authorities communicate with new North Korean arrivals.

Sources close to the latest group of four North Korean refugees to land in Thailand say the smuggling fee is about US$5,000 per person, but that it can be as high as $13,000 if the asylum seeker in question is a government official or otherwise deemed to be important person. He-shim, Su-ok, He-yong and Chol-yong all have elder kin who have already fled North Korea and been resettled in South Korea. And although the child refugees are reluctant to explain exactly how their passage was organized, it is most likely that their relatives paid Chinese traffickers in advance.

Others reportedly pledge to pay once they have safely reached South Korea, where upon arrival they receive the equivalent of about $10,000 from government authorities. But that also means that the Chinese gangs must have enforcers in South Korea, whose presence ensures that payments are made. Smuggling fees include transportation, food and accommodation in safe houses along the way - and allegedly bribes for Chinese police who ensure safe passage. Nearly all North Korean refugees enter China illegally without passports and visas, and few carry any documentation that might reveal their true identities.

The four youngsters in Chiang Saen all came from Yanggang and North Hamgyong provinces in northeastern North Korea, an impoverished area with an inhospitable climate and poor soil. Living conditions there are harsh at the best of times: it was the worst-affected area during the famine in the mid- and late 1990s in which thousands starved to death. The two provinces were also previously heavily industrialized and formed North Korea's "rust belt" of steel mills, iron works and foundries. Recent visitors to the area tell of huge abandoned, crumbling factories, many of which are gradually being dismantled and sold as scrap metal to China.

No looking back
Crushing poverty is arguably the main reason most refugees come from that particular region of North Korea. Another is its proximity to Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture, home to 850,000 ethnic Koreans in the neighboring Chinese province of Jilin. Koreans legally based in China sometimes help and shelter their poorer cousins from south of the Tumen river, which forms the border between Yanbian and North Korea.

Refugee He-shim did not cross into Yanbian but, through contacts somewhere on the other side of the border, forded the Yalu River where a "Chinese man" was waiting for her on the opposite riverbank and eventually took her to the town of Changbai, also in Jilin province though not in the autonomous prefecture. From there, she was escorted to a house where she met up with the other three youngsters, who came from the same part of North Korea.

Then their story gets hazier, and it is obvious that they are omitting crucial details about how and where they traveled through China. A South Korean resident in Thailand, who sometimes serves as a volunteer interpreter for Thailand's immigration police in the northern border areas, says that once refugees enter China they are in the hands of the gangs - and once they are set ashore to Thailand they are warned that they could be killed if they divulge information about their journey. They are afraid of the gangs, says the South Korean, who wants to be anonymous for the same reason. The names of the four refugees have also been changed to protect them and their relatives in North Korea.

Escaping North Korea's so-called workers' paradise is a crime, and over the years many refugees have been shot and killed while trying to cross the border into China. Others have been executed after being captured and repatriated by Chinese authorities. Apart from the obvious dangers to escapees' family members who still reside in North Korea, the refugees also fear they personally could be harmed by human-smuggling gangs if it is discovered they have been talking to the media.

He-shim says they traveled by "train, bus, taxi and truck" and she mentions that they had to wait in Beijing for a while. All the while she and the group were escorted by different "Chinese men" as they passed from town to town. Eventually they reached an area in southern Yunnan province close to the Lao border. There the car stopped, and they were required to walk over steep border mountains into Laos, where another car was waiting for them and took them to the Mekong River where the boat that finally reached safety in Chiang Saen was docked.

According to a recent International Crisis Group report, "The network operators have strong bases in China and Laos as well as established contacts in Thailand." It is noteworthy that the route He-shim and her group followed to Thailand is exactly the same "underground railroad" frequently used in the past by illegal Chinese migrants, who often then left Thailand by boat for the US or Western Europe. That human traffic has now almost entirely ceased as more and more Chinese illegal migrants travel around the world by airplane before arriving in the United States or Europe. Yet China's infamous "snakehead" human traffickers have obviously found new customers for their underground services: North Korean refugees.

On the Thai side, somebody must provide the new North Korean arrivals with protection, though the refugees insisted through their South Korean interpreter - not convincingly - that they got on a public bus and traveled more than 60km to Chiang Rai, where they reported themselves to a police station unassisted. The five young refugees are now staying at a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of town awaiting transportation to Bangkok and eventual resettlement in South Korea.

As news of their and others' safe passage spreads inside North Korea, the more popular the underground route to Thailand will no doubt become.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.