Nearly two months after fleeing his impoverished homeland, Lee Dong-soo could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Guided by Christian activists, he had traveled thousands of miles overland across China to a rented house in Bangkok. There he waited for a safe passage to South Korea and the promise of a new citizenship.
But on Aug. 22, Thai police, tipped off by neighbors, raided the house and arrested 175 North Koreans living there. Two days later, a Thai court sentenced 136 of the detainees, including Mr. Lee – a pseudonym – to 30 days in jail for illegal entry into Thailand.
In China, detention often spells disaster for North Koreans, who are deported home to face the consequences. But arrest in Thailand didn't snuff out Lee's dreams of exile. Instead, he's weighing the option of making a new life not in South Korea, his original goal, but in the US, which also offers asylum to North Korean refugees. "I think we can enjoy freedom in the US," he says. "I hear it's a more developed country."
That dream is luring more North Koreans to Bangkok, putting a strain on Thailand's pattern of tolerance and quiet cooperation. Last month's raid pushed the total number of North Koreans detained so far this year above 400, up from 80 in 2005, raising concerns about a surge in arrivals.
Thailand is already home to large populations of displaced minorities from neighbors Laos and Burma, and Thai government officials are wary of becoming a magnet for more refugees who arrive via those countries.
Activists say the flow is unlikely to stop, as many North Koreans already in China are looking for a safe haven.
"They come to Thailand because it's one of only a few countries where they can seek asylum.... Thailand is probably the best country to go right now," says Chun Ki-won, a South Korean missionary who was jailed in China in 2001 for his work. He estimates that between 150 and 200 more North Koreans are hiding in Thailand, awaiting resettlement.
Under the 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act, the US offers fast-track processing for asylum seekers, though only a handful have so far been accepted. Mr. Chun says that 30 more applicants who fled to Southeast Asia prior to the recent arrests in Bangkok are pending. Since the 1990s, more than 8,000 North Koreans have resettled in South Korea, and US officials say that country will remain the destination of choice for most refugees.
Critics say the Human Rights Act is toothless, as it depends on refugees reaching a safe haven like Thailand.
"In order for the act to be really effective, US diplomatic missions in a number of countries must be flexible and creative in the way that they offer sanctuary to refugees," says Tim Peters, a US evangelical pastor who runs Helping Hands Korea, a charity based in Seoul.
Among those countries is China, which views North Koreans as illegal economic migrants. In recent years, following a spate of high-profile cases, it has tightened security at foreign missions in China to stop North Koreans from claiming asylum there. Beijing has also rebuffed requests by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR to expand their operations in China.
US officials have urged China to stop the expulsion of asylum seekers, noting its obligations under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.
"We are aggressively encouraging all governments in the region to provide opportunities for all North Koreans who reach their destination to allow them to move on to resettle in third countries," Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey told reporters in Bangkok last week.
Leaving North Korea without permission is forbidden, and relatives of identified defectors fall under suspicion. "If the father is seen to be a political dissident, the whole family is punished and sent off to a political prison camp," says Vitit Muntarbhon, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea.
The flight from North Korea to Southeast Asia has been compared to the "Underground Railroad" that transported black slaves in the South to the free North. That makes Thailand a crucial halfway station after a long and often perilous journey across China's vast hinterland and southern borders.
While Lee, a young factory worker, covered the distance quickly, and without getting caught, other refugees struggle to reach Thailand. Many spend years living illegally in China before linking up with activists from South Korea. Human traffickers profit from the trade, taking an upfront payment with the promise of a money transfer if refugees reach South Korea, which gives $10,500 as a one-time payment to new citizens.
After her mother fell sick, Jun Jae-youn left North Korea in 1998 and later married a Chinese man. They had a daughter, and she tried to settle into her new life in northeast China. "I could live my daily life. But I wasn't a citizen, I was illegal. I always felt that burden," she recalls.
After she heard that her relatives had defected to South Korea, Ms. Jun – a pseudonym – decided to follow them, even though it meant leaving her husband and child. Earlier this year, together with four other North Koreans, she crossed into northern Thailand, and ran into a police checkpoint. The group was deported across the border to Burma, but sneaked back again.
Finally, they reached the safe house in Bangkok, and were told by activists to lie low until passage to South Korea could be arranged. A week later, the house was raided, and Jun, who wears a beaded barrette in her bleached-brown hair, found herself in a Thai prison, along with her housemates.
Her long journey is almost over. UN officials have registered the North Korean detainees for resettlement at the end of their 30-day sentence. Asked if she wants to go to the US or South Korea, Jun knits her brow. "I've not decided. I just want to go somewhere safe," she says.