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Why Thailand has become a popular path to freedom for North Korean defectors

A growing number of North Korean defectors are crossing illegally into Thailand via a new 'underground railroad' because Thailand processes defectors and sends them to South Korea quickly.

By Jared FerrieCorrespondent / September 7, 2011



Chiang Saen, Thailand

It was the middle of rainy season and the Mekong River was a muddy, swirling torrent when three families of North Korean defectors crossed over from Laos. They climbed the bank on the Thai side and began walking into town – the final stretch of a 3,000-mile journey to freedom.

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This group was only the latest of a growing number of North Koreans to arrive in the quiet riverside town of Chiang Saen. After turning themselves in at the local police station, they joined about a dozen others who were in a detention center waiting to be processed by the Thai authorities and then flown to Seoul by the South Korean government.

Despite its length, the route is becoming increasingly popular for those desperate to escape extreme poverty and oppression in the Hermit Kingdom. About 2,500 North Korean refugees entered Thailand last year, up from 46 in 2004.

A member of the group that recently arrived in Chiang Saen says she spent five years in China before continuing her journey to Thailand.

The defectors take great risks to get here. After escaping into China, they must dodge police who may arrest them and send them back to North Korea to be imprisoned. They usually need to save money to pay brokers who organize the journey, but as illegal workers they are subject to exploitation.

Many women are forced into the sex trade, while men end up working as hired muscle for Chinese gangsters, according to a defector who goes by the pseudonym “Joseph.”

'Joseph's' journey

In a telephone interview from Seoul, Joseph says he spent three years in the Chinese border city of Yanji. He was in his early teens at the time, but he was unable to go to school and instead found work in a restaurant. Eventually he heard about a Christian group that was spiriting defectors along a new underground railroad into South Korea.

Joseph was to face some of his worst experiences along the route itself. The group he was with made it through China and crossed into Burma, along with a Korean-American pastor who was guiding them. But they were afraid of the Burmese authorities and decided to try to reach Thailand through Laos instead.

Disaster struck as they were crossing the Mekong, which forms the border between Burma and Laos. Halfway across, their boat overturned and the pastor drowned.

“The water was going so fast, we couldn’t save him,” Joseph recalls. “We couldn’t even save ourselves. We were rescued by a boat.”

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