All aboard North Korea's refugee railroad
By Sebastian Strangio
PHNOM PENH - In late November 2006, after a long, perilous journey from
northeast China, a North Korean national crossed the Vietnamese frontier into
Cambodia's northeast Mondulkiri province. The man, identified only as Ly Hai
Long in local media reports, was promptly arrested by Cambodian police, who
told a reporter from the Cambodia Daily that they had deported him to Vietnam.
Recently leaked cables from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, part of a cache of
777 dispatches released last month by anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, tell
a different story. According
to one cable (06PHNOMPENH2072) from the same month, Ly Hai Long was secretly
allowed to remain in Cambodia. The South Korean ambassador to Cambodia
confirmed to United States officials "that his government would be working
quietly with the RGC [Royal Government of Cambodia] to ensure that the North
Korean is moved to South Korea".
Thamrongsak Meechubot, then head of the office of the United Nations refugee
agency in Phnom Penh, told US officials he was "not surprised" that Cambodian
police had leaked information about the man's deportation. The implication was
that the rumor was used to provide a cover of secrecy to his transfer to the
South. Thamrongsak said it was a tactic that had been used by the Cambodians
The leaked US diplomatic cables reveal how Cambodia has in recent years worked
quietly with South Korean officials to process and transfer hundreds of North
Korean refugees who have arrived in Cambodia seeking asylum. US officials saw
the transfer of refugees through the country as a highly sensitive issue in
light of Phnom Penh's historic ties with Pyongyang and the ongoing delicate
negotiations on the Korean Peninsula over the North's nuclear program.
North Korean citizens began fleeing their country in large numbers in the
mid-1990s when a collapse of the country's food distribution systems coincided
with a devastating famine. The stream of refugees, most of whom depart via the
country's porous border with China and reach Southeast Asia with the help of
people smuggling gangs and missionary organizations, has since swollen the
North Korean diaspora living in South Korea to more than 21,000.
Until recently, Cambodia was one of the main destinations for North Korean
refugees, who reached the country via China and Vietnam.
According to the US cables, the processing of North Korean arrivals is done in
a quiet, ad hoc manner. In an October 2006 dispatch (06PHNOMPENH1927), Om
Yentieng, one of Prime Minister Hun Sen's advisors, was quoted as saying that
the processing of North Koreans in Cambodia was "the result of an understanding
reached between the prime minister and the South Korean ambassador to
Secrecy was clearly a priority for the South Koreans. In a July 2007 cable
(07PHNOMPENH925) documenting a meeting between South Korean and US officials to
discuss the fate of five North Korean refugees in Cambodia who were seeking
resettlement in the US, the South Koreans were "preoccupied with conveying
their desire that the ROK [Republic of Korea - South Korea] pipeline for North
Korean refugees not be publicly revealed". They also demanded it remain
separate from Washington's own North Korean "refugee processing pipeline".
A dispatch from April 2008 (08PHNOMPENH316) expressed gratitude to Cambodian
officials for "expeditiously processing" the exit permits of two North Korean
individuals who departed for the US on April 16. American officials were also
"impressed" at Cambodian immigration officials' "discreet handling" of the
cases of another group of North Koreans who departed the previous November.
"During the quiet November departure, no one at the airport noticed the North
Koreans' comings and goings," it stated. (According to figures released by the
Office of Immigration Statistics at the Department of Homeland Security in May,
the US resettled more than 100 North Korean refugees between 2006 and 2010
under legislation to help improve human rights conditions in the reclusive
In some communications, US officials appeared concerned that Cambodia's refugee
deal with Seoul might compromise its relationship with Pyongyang, cemented by
the close personal friendship of "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung and former King
Norodom Sihanouk. In the October 2006 cable (06PHNOMPENH1927), Cambodian
Foreign Ministry official Long Visalo told embassy officials that despite the
"historic relationship" between the two iconic Asian leaders, the refugee issue
was unlikely to harm bilateral ties.
In the cable, however, Om Yentieng "did register some concern over the PM's
safety due to the proximity of the North Korean Embassy [which is next door] to
the PM's residence" should Cambodian cooperation on the refugee issue become
The cables give no indication of the total number of North Koreans who have
passed through Cambodia on their way to third countries. But North Korean
defectors and refugee aid groups in South Korea indicate that Cambodia once
formed a significant terminus of a modern day underground railroad.
Jeong Yu-mi, a 24-year-old student who fled North Korea in 1998, said that
after a 10-day journey from northeast China, she spent five months in Phnom
Penh while the South Korean Embassy approved her resettlement. "They rent a
safe house and put them in there for five months," recalled Yu-mi, who used a
pseudonym to protect relatives still in North Korea. "It was a two-story
building and about 300 people were there."
It appears, however, that Cambodia has since declined in importance as a
conduit for North Korean defectors in favor of a route through Laos into
northern Thailand. Pastor Chun Ki-won, head of the Seoul-based refugee aid
group Durihana said that Cambodia - along with Mongolia - was one of the few
Asian countries willing to aid North Koreans at the start of the 2000s when
refugee flows were still relatively low.
Durihana has helped around 900 North Korean defectors reach South Korea over
the years. Chun's first aid mission, which he undertook in July 2001, involved
the smuggling of a North Korean woman and her child from northeast China to
Phnom Penh via Vietnam. Cambodia increased in importance after December 2001,
Chun said, when he was arrested in a Chinese crackdown trying to smuggle a
group of refugees across the Mongolian border.
Chun said that due to increased vigilance by Vietnamese authorities, most North
Korean refugees now arrive in Southeast Asia via Laos and Thailand. The claim
is mirrored in figures from the Thai Immigration Bureau which reveal a 50-fold
increase in North Korean arrivals from Laos, from 46 in 2004 - around the time
arrivals in Cambodia seem to have begun their decline - to 2,482 in 2010. 870
North Korean refugee arrivals have already been recorded between January and
April of this year.
In a 2006 cable from the US consulate in Chiang Mai (06CHIANGMAI79), one
official predicted that the increase in North Korean refugee arrivals - then
still fairly contained - "may yet be the tip of the iceberg". "[E]vidence
suggests that the stream of refugees is unlikely to decrease, with a network of
Christian missionary organizations in Thailand and southern China cooperating
to bring in more refugees through Yunnan province, Burma [Myanmar], and Laos
and into Thailand's Chiang Rai province," the cable stated.
Citing police reports, the dispatch added that defectors - usually "women with
children or older men, and only occasionally working age males" - were
arrested, handed over to immigration authorities in Bangkok and processed in a
similar way as in Cambodia in line with "agreements among the [Thai
government], South Korean Embassy and UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees]". According a recent report in the Bangkok Post, however, Thai
officials have rebuffed a South Korean proposal to build a "coordination
center" in Chiang Rai province to help process North Koreans, worrying that it
might only quicken the influx of refugees.
Despite the apparent drop-off in numbers arriving in Cambodia, local officials
remained tight-lipped about the possible presence of North Koreans. One
representative at the South Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment on
the processing of North Korean refugees in Cambodia; a staff member at the
North Korean Embassy hung up the phone. Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the
Cambodian ministry of interior, denied any knowledge of North Korean defectors
in Cambodia. "We are a member of the 1951 [Refugee] Convention and also we are
a good friend of both South Korea and North Korea," he said.
Whatever the attitude of the authorities in Thailand and Cambodia, analysts say
the flow of refugees out of moribund, famine-stricken North Korea is only
likely to increase. Tim Peters, the head of Helping Hands Korea, a Seoul-based
missionary group that aids North Korean refugees, said that food shortages,
economic mismanagement and the "continued inability of Pyongyang to provide
regular food aid to its people" has contributed to a growing restlessness and
disenchantment. "That results in many cases in people looking at other options
and alternatives that their parents never did," he said.
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He can
be reached at[email protected]
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