Frightened and disconsolate, 50 North Koreans seeking a better life in the southern part of their divided peninsula sit in an abandoned police station on the Thai side of the broad Mekong River and count the hours until they can continue on with the final stage of their journey.
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They look utterly exhausted, and little wonder; the journey to their promised land has led them more than 3,000 hazardous miles through China and Laos to the relative safety of Thailand. This group is part of a growing flood of North Korean refugees paying traffickers around $10,000 to smuggle them along this route to Seoul. Among their number are three young children and a seven month-old baby born somewhere en route in China.
As other escape routes from North Korea become more difficult, South-East Asia has become the route of choice and officials in Thailand say the number of North Koreans arriving here from neighboring Laos has risen a remarkable fiftyfold in the past six years. In 2004, there were just 46 such migrants. Last year the total had reached 2,482.
“But the actual number is probably much higher,” said Colonel Phopkorn Kooncharoensook, the concerned police chief of the Mekong river town of Chiang Saen. The officer has the task of detaining the illegal immigrants before passing them on to the immigration authorities at Thailand’s northernmost border crossing, Mae Sai, where they are officially registered and transported to holding centres in Bangkok and Kanchanaburi.
While the North Koreans are classed as illegal immigrants by the Thai authorities, they are nevertheless passed on to the care of the South Korean embassy in Bangkok rather than being sent back to Laos or China. The embassy processes the migrants and flies all but suspected North Korean spies on direct flights to Seoul, where government agencies and local church groups help the new arrivals settle in.
A spokeswoman for South Korea’s foreign ministry declined to comment specifically about the situation in Thailand, but instead highlighted a 2010 document that makes clear the government’s policy towards people from the north. It says: “The Korean government in principle accepts all North Koreans who wish, out of their own free will, to resettle in the South, and provides them protection and assistance. To bring North Korean refugees from overseas, the government maintains close cooperation with other countries and international organisations. Above all, the government seeks to ensure North Korean refugees are not forced to repatriate against their will.”
Police and provincial authorities in China appear to turn a blind eye to the presence of North Korean refugees on their territory, having reportedly bought off by the trafficking organisations who escort the migrants on their long and arduous journey, much of it through mountainous terrain and much of it on foot.
Although, officially confined to the immediate area of the Chiang Saen police station, the North Koreans are allowed to shop for provisions at the local market and attend services at a nearby Christian church. On their journey here they have often taken whatever casual employment they can get. “They usually arrive with enough money to support themselves,” said Col Phopkorn. “Their first request is for advice on how to buy a SIM card for their mobile phone.”
In Thailand, the migrants will often receive unofficial support as well as well as what they get from the embassy and the immigration authorities. “There is a support network in Thailand, and South Korea, mainly through the South Korean churches here,” said Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based regional analyst. “As you may remember, some South Korean church workers were arrested in, expelled from, China a few years ago, so it's becoming more difficult for them to operate there.”
The trafficking procedure that brought this group safely to Thailand appears to have been streamlined and made more secure since the first North Koreans attempted the journey more than a decade ago. “The first North Koreans to arrive in Chiang Saen were dirty, hungry and penniless,” said a local guesthouse owner, who helped provide accommodation for the first migrants until the city’s former police station was opened up as temporary quarters.
In the early years, many North Koreans attempting to cross China were captured by Chinese police and repatriated to North Korea, where they faced imprisonment and even execution. Nowadays, money appears to smooth the route for the refugees.
Nevertheless, unknown numbers fail to clear the first hurdle, the twin rivers of Yalu and Tumen, that form the already heavily patrolled border between North Korea and China. Winter, when the rivers are frozen, is a favoured time to cross, but the migrants then have to survive severe weather conditions in the mountain ranges that block their way west. Landlocked Laos, where 90 percent of the country is mountainous, presents a huge challenge before the migrants arrive at the Mekong River border with Thailand. Few roads penetrate the Laotian mountains.
Daniel Pinkston, who is based in Seoul with the International Crisis Group, said that once the migrants made it to South Korea there was an intensive resettlement programme that lasted up to 12 weeks to help them overcome the disorientation. It covered everything the authorities believe the new arrivals would need to help them adapt. “It’s a debriefing and education programme about life in South Korea,” he said.
But until they get there, anxiety is the operative word for these people. The trafficking organisations have reportedly sworn them to secrecy on pain of retribution against the families they have left behind in North Korea and they let slip few precise details about their journey. “These are very frightened people,” said Chiang Saen lawyer Sugint Dechkul. “They’ll only relax when they reach South Korea.”