Features | Society | Southeast Asia

North Korea’s Underground Railway

The sleepy Thai district of Chiang Saen has become a key transit hub for North Korean refugees. But it’s leaving Bangkok with a political headache.

By Irwin Loy for

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.

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.

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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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But diplomatic cables released by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks suggest Thailand is hardly thrilled about the situation.

‘Immigration and border police say they are at a loss over how to effectively manage the growing number of North Koreans who enter Thailand illegally,’ a political officer attached to the US Consulate in Chiang Mai wrote in a 2006 cable. ‘… It is evident that missionary organizations and refugee handlers are focused on bringing more North Koreans through China and into Thailand in the near future. The recent rise in the numbers crossing the Mekong may yet be the tip of the iceberg.’

By the end of that year, more than 2,000 registered defectors were admitted to South Korea, according to the country’s Ministry of Unification. It represented a massive leap over the 50 or so that trickled in a decade earlier. The official tally has only continued to soar, peaking at almost 3,000 in 2009. There are now officially more than 20,000 North Korean defectors living in the South.

In Chiang Saen’s riverside police station, local authorities decline to talk about the issue. But in a small wood building behind the station, the situation is evident.Signs written in Korean are stuck to the walls.On a recent afternoon, a group of defectors could be seen eating lunch. Bibles were stacked neatly on a table inside the small building.

‘I ask the police, why are there so many Koreans staying in the police station,’ says Tu. ‘They say there are too many. They don’t have enough room to hold them.’

Daniel Pinkston is the deputy project director of the International Crisis Group’s North East Asia Programme, focusing on inter-Korean relations. He says Thailand has found itself in a position where it’s balancing its humanitarian obligations with its political concerns.

‘The Thai authorities have to deal with the defectors, and that can be burdensome for the Thai government,’ he says. ‘And of course the North Koreans don’t like it. So whatever action the Thai authorities might take could alienate the North Korean government as well.’

For now, however, Thailand appears willing to continue cooperating on this issue with South Korea, one of its largest trading partners. A leaked cable sent from the US Embassy in Bangkok in late 2009 calls it a ‘pragmatic approach.’

‘The special policy is publicly presented by (the government) as “Koreans being deported to Korea,” with geographic distinctions between North and South conveniently blurred,’ the cable states.

In the meantime, the steady stream of North Korean defectors continues to flow into Chiang Saen. Late one recent afternoon, after days of unbroken rainfall gave way to a spot of hot, dry weather, a group of 10 North Koreans found themselves sitting in the shade by the side of the road.

‘North Korea,’ one woman says in rudimentary English when asked where she’s from. ‘DPRK.’

She says she spent the last five years in China before coming here with her elderly mother and a two-year-old child. Another two families are part of the group. But she changes the subject when asked about her journey, or her time in North Korea.

She just wants to go to Bangkok, the woman explains. But the last bus has left for the day. She pulls out a cell phone and calls a contact — a friend, she says, in South Korea. After several minutes of heated discussion, she decides it’s time to push onward.

She hunches forward, carrying her two-year-old on her back. Then, as cars and trucks rumble past, she leads the group on a steady march into town.

Irwin Loy is a journalist based in Phnom Penh. He reports on politics and development throughout Southeast Asia.