North Korea's underground railroad to Thailand
By Bertil Lintner
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.
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
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
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.