Thousands of North Koreans flee to Thailand with help of Christian ‘underground railroad’
THOUSANDS of North Koreans are illegally slipping into Thailand through an underground Christian network.
Thailand is a popular transit route for North Korean defectors, with the two nations separated by around 3,000 miles.
The journey from the hermit nation to the freedom of the South can be undertaken through China in two ways.
The first is with the help of rogue people smugglers, although the cost of this can go into several thousands of dollars per person.
But the other means of escape is via secretive Christian networks operating out of Seoul – a route known as the “underground railroad” among Christian smugglers.
The clandestine leader of one of these Christian networks told PRI: “When (the defectors) first get out of North Korea, they look really shabby and skinny.
“We usually make them stay at a church member’s house (in China) for a month, just to eat.”
This isn’t just an act of kindness – it’s more a matter of survival, with painfully thin North Koreans easily spotted by China’s surveillance network.
Christian smugglers are often faced with refugees who find China’s landscape overwhelmingly modern.
One defector told PRI that he never eaten pork until he arrived at a Chinese safe house, recalling how his protectors also fed him cake on his birthday.
Cake is not common to North Koreans, with the defector describing the treat as “an oddity, somewhat repellant”.
Once they look healthier, the refugees must evade the eyes of Chinese officials, as they continue their journey down to the border of Laos using public trains and buses.
Then begins days of trekking, riverboats or even more buses, as defectors push through Laos to reach the Mekong River – and the Thailand border where they are able to find a police officer and request to be arrested.
The arrest will result in South Korea negotiating their release before flying them to Seoul.
There the North Korean defector will be debriefed, interrogated and finally released into South Korean society.
Despite the vast distance from North Korea, Thailand is in fact one of the closest reachable nations where North Koreans can expect government help to reach South Korea – the hermit nation’s estranged sibling.
The ‘North Korea-to-Thailand’ route has seen a surge in new travellers, according to data seen by Reuters.
The news agency reports that 385 North Koreans were processed as unauthorised entrants in Thailand in the first six months of 2017.
If the influx continues, Thailand can expect to see almost 800 North Korean entrants by the end of the year.
An immigration official who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said: “An average of 20 to 30 North Koreans arrive each week now in northern Thailand alone.”
For comparison, around 500 North Korean defectors entered Thailand last year.
The South’s Unification Ministry said 593 North Korean defectors had come to the South in the first six months of 2017.
Officially, Thailand treats North Koreans who enter the country as illegal migrants rather than refugees.
Thailand has not signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees and has no specific law on refugees.
Unofficially, arrangements are often made between Thai authorities, the South Korean government, and defectors on the ground.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees rarely processes North Korean defectors in Thailand because of the arrangement between Thailand and South Korea.
Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for UNHCR Asia, told Reuters: “People fleeing North Korea don’t usually approach UNHCR offices as they have other ways of seeking safety.” – Express