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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”