The Long Road to South Korea

“There are more Chinese border guards on the border between China and Thailand and Laos, so things are getting more difficult for North Korean defectors. Now they mostly enter Thailand at a point tens of kilometers away from the usual route, as they have been since the start of the year,” says an activist with a missionary organization.

In 1999, the Chinese government took out a 99-year lease on Laotian land in the ‘Golden Triangle’ that bisects Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. The Chinese government has built a casino on the land for wealthy Chinese citizens to gamble to their hearts’ content.

The casino and a customs house were completed late last year, and the casino threw open its doors early in 2012. It was this that led to enhanced Chinese border security, and it was this enhanced border guard which forced North Korea defectors out of the region. A shootout last year between smugglers and local police didn’t help.

▲ “90% of North Korean defectors enter South Korea through Thailand”

Most defectors leave China from Yunnan Province, enter Laos or Thailand and then follow a well-worn path into South Korea. Until the early 2000s there were other routes covering Mongolia, Vietnam and Myanmar too, but now more than 90% are forced to enter through just two countries; Laos and Thailand.

It’s not easy; the Thailand and Laos defection route is an arduous trek involving many kilometers of walking. But the walking is not all, as the ‘South Korean dream’ can easily be shattered by the Chinese police at the border.

“The defectors, after traveling thousands of kilometers, tremble in fear as they see the Chinese police,” the missionary comments. “If they are arrested it is highly likely that they will be repatriated to North Korea.”

10 to 15 people defect every week across this border, missionary groups believe. Recently the number of defectors crossing the ‘Golden Triangle’ border has increased once again due to a slight easing of security there; however, the majority of defectors still cross here at the safer point.

They usually follow the advice of their brokers, visiting the local police immediately after crossing. They can’t speak the local language, but memorize the word ‘police’ and use it to ask local people for help. In the past they only crossed the Mekong River at dawn, but nowadays they cross during daytime, too, not least since many Thai policemen are willing to take bribes from them.

▲ “Defectors without a word of English memorizing the word ‘police’”

When defectors are arrested for illegal entry into Thailand’s most northerly state, they are sent to Chiang Mai District Court. A trial is held, and they are then sent to a detention center in Mesai.

Daily NK visited the center to ask a few questions about defectors. A meeting with them was impossible, we were told. In the past civilians were allowed to visit, but last May the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade took full charge of the defector issue, so policy changed.

They only public knowledge now is the total number of defectors interned at any one time. As of early September there were 20 women (7 children and 13 adults) and a single man. Most defect in groups of 2 or 3, I am told, and at the most 4. Many women leave their husbands behind and defect with their children.

Once there are 50 or so in Mesai, it becomes practical to move them to Bangkok. This gathering process can take a month under certain circumstances, but usually less. After arriving at Bangkok Immigration Detention Center they go through another investigation for around a month before being sent to South Korea. It takes about two months in total to get to South Korea after leaving China.

▲ “South Korea-Thai police cooperation”

Since May of this year the two countries have been cooperating, and it is going quite well, locals say.

One local resident who has been supporting defectors for a long time says, “Since the South Korean Foreign Ministry started dealing with defectors directly, the help of private organizations and missionaries stopped being needed. Currently, they are working well with the Thai government and this is shortening the time taken to get to Bangkok”

However, missionaries who could once visit defectors without restriction complain that they are being denied that access now. One points out, “The government stops visitors from private organizations meeting the defectors, saying that it is due to possible delays in processing. But meeting with locals can give psychological stability to people in an unstable state.”

A local embassy official disagrees, however, commenting, “Missionary contact with defectors can cause unnecessary problems, especially when defector issues are being handled well with the cooperation of the Thai police and immigration.”

▲ “Problems with uncooperative defectors”

Local residents in border towns say that there has been a change of perception among defectors, too. Sometimes they seem to forget that they are still illegal immigrants.

One local resident reveals, “The attitude of defectors has changed tremendously. Those with family already living in South Korea or who have been in China for a long time know the process of going to court in Thailand. Knowing they will get help regardless, many do not follow the rules.”

“Defectors take help for granted,” the resident adds. “The level of compassion the locals have for these defectors has fallen considerably as a result, with many just thinking that ‘the government will take care of it’.”