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.
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The survivors were detained for a month by Lao authorities. Then they were handed over to police in Burma, where they were imprisoned for another four months. Because the pastor was a US citizen, American embassy officials investigated the incident. They passed information along to South Korean diplomats who finally found Joseph’s group and rescued them.Skip to next paragraph
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How to quickly deal with defectors
While Thai and South Korean officials are reluctant to speak on record, a confidential US diplomatic cable recently released by Wikileaks indicates that the two governments have reached agreement on how to quickly deal with defectors.
“The RTG (Royal Thai Government) permits North Koreans entering Thailand illegally to resettle in the republic of Korea (ROK) … The special policy is publicly presented by the RTG as ‘Koreans being deported to Korea’, with geographical distinctions conveniently blurred,” reads a December 2009 cable, which notes that the defectors are processed within a month of being detained.
The South Korean government provides quite a bit of assistance to defectors once they arrive in the country, according to Daniel Pinkston, deputy project director of the Northeast Asia program for the International Crisis Group (ICG).
He says the refugees first attend a 12-week course on how to integrate into South Korean society, which includes lessons on subjects such as accessing health care. They are then provided with cash and accommodation. Nongovernmental organizations support the defectors as they settle into their new lives, helping them find jobs and schools.
Despite such assistance, many defectors have a tough time adjusting to life on the other side of the border, according to a recent report by ICG.
“The two sides of the Demilitarized Zone have diverged so much in economics, politics, language, and social organization that people are now strangers to each other,” ICG says, calling on the South Korean government to “introduce tough anti-discrimination laws and practices.”
Often stunted by a lack of education – and sometimes malnutrition – many North Koreans find it hard to succeed in an alien, capitalist society, according to the report.
But those difficulties pale in comparison with having to live in a repressive state where people are forced to eat leaves to fight off starvation, says Joseph.
“There really is no country like South Korea for North Koreans,” he says. “I am so happy. I can work, I can study.”