North Korea’s Underground Railway


Of all the people who have passed by Tu Sanaroon’s riverfront guesthouse lately, it was the man who knocked on her door in the middle of the night, carrying his elderly mother on his back, who she remembers most.

The monsoon rains had drenched this sleepy town for hours, and the group of migrants, their clothes soaking wet, had come looking for shelter.

‘This other old woman, she can’t walk. I think she was his mother. And he carried her by the back like this,’ Tu says, hunching over as if shouldering a heavy load.

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Tu says she turned the group away, afraid she would get in trouble with local authorities for housing undocumented migrants. Instead, she gave them blankets and showed them to a nearby pagoda. When she checked on them in the morning, they were gone.

To most in Thailand, it’s not Chiang Saen’s temple ruins, or its ancient city walls that draw the visitors. Rather, it’s the closest hub to one of Thailand’s kitschier tourist attractions, lying a few miles south of the so-called Golden Triangle. Once a moniker bestowed on an area notorious as a major centre for global opium production, here it refers to the tourist photo-op situated near the point where Thailand meets Laos and Burma at the Mekong River.

Chiang Saen’s place in the triangle has also made it an unlikely transit point for a thriving underground railway of refugees that begins 2,500 miles to the north. For many defectors fleeing North Korea, Chiang Saen has become a key gateway on the long journey to freedom, fuelled by an established network of brokers and Christian missionary organizations.

Tu says she started seeing small groups of North Koreans, no more than a handful at a time, a few years ago. These days, a new group arrives almost daily.

‘I feel sad for them because this isn’t their country,’ she says. ‘I don’t know how much money they have. Enough to get to another city? I want to help them but I can’t.’

The first step for the defectors is slipping into China. Many end up in towns like Yanji, the capital of Yanbian, the Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China’s northeast.

‘It was one of the worst times of my life,’ says Joseph, a pseudonym used by one North Korean who defected to the south in 2005. Before he asked a Christian missionary for help, he had spent years living on the margins in Yanji. He eventually learned Chinese and found work in restaurants. But for women, who make up three-quarters of new defectors, according to recent reports, life as an undocumented migrant can be even worse.

‘It's hard to get jobs in China,’ Joseph says. ‘Many girls, they end up working in the sex trade.’

Defectors also live with the constant fear of being caught. Chinese authorities actively arrest and repatriate North Koreans living illegally in China. North Korea can consider defecting tantamount to treason; convictions can net lengthy sentences in hard labour, while torture and capital punishment have also been reported.

But China’s actions may now instead be exacerbating the situation. Recent reports suggest renewed Chinese crackdowns this year have forced a new wave of defectors to leave China much sooner than their predecessors did, effectively ensuring a healthy demand for the underground networks that facilitate the southbound migration. The risky route through China’s Yunnan Province, then onto the Golden Triangle, has become the most popular.

With the steady stream of defectors, however, come diplomatic problems for Thailand. The North Koreans come to Thailand because they believe the country won’t repatriate them. Indeed, Thailand quietly turns them over to a South Korean government that has a well-established resettlement programme for defectors.

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