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A Perilous Escape From Pyongyang

by Bertil Lintner

What began as a trickle is becoming a flood. According to official statistics, more than 400 illegal migrants from North Korea were apprehended in Thailand last year, up significantly from only 80 nabbed in 2005. But the actual figure of North Korean asylum seekers who have made the 5,000-kilometer-plus trip to Thailand from North Korea through China and, usually, Laos, could be much higher. A South Korean interpreter, who helps the Thai police interview the refugees, estimates that as many as 1,000 North Koreans entered Thailand in 2006. Many are living in hiding and waiting for the right moment to turn themselves over to the Thai authorities. Unlike China, which shares a border with North Korea, Thailand does not send the refugees back; they process each case and, together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the South Korean embassy in Bangkok, arrange for their eventual resettlement, usually in South Korea.

The North Koreans are fleeing one of the world's most repressive regimes and economic misery, but the profile of the refugees has also changed over the past few years. Most of the North Koreans now reaching Thailand are not starving peasants, but come from urban middle-class backgrounds, and they usually have kin who have already fled North Korea and been resettled in the south. That may be necessary, because in order to reach Thailand safely, the refugees have to pay well-organized Chinese criminal gangs for the passage. Sources close to the North Korean refugees in Thailand say the smuggling fee is at least $5,000 per person, and that it can be as high as $13,000 if the asylum seeker in question is a government official or otherwise deemed to be an important person who needs special protection. The United States-based Refugee International pointed out in a 2006 report that “few of the coal miners and peasants whom RI interviewed in China … could ever dream of amassing the cash needed to take the overland route through Southeast Asia.”

Relatives in South Korea usually pay the Chinese traffickers in advance, and smuggling fees include transportation, food and accommodation in safe houses along the way—and allegedly bribes for Chinese police to ensure safe passage. Nearly all North Korean refugees enter China illegally without passports and visas and few carry any documentation that might reveal their true identities. Some refugees are also helped by South Korean church workers, who operate clandestinely in the border areas, while others reportedly pledge to pay once they have reached South Korea, where they receive a generous allowance from the government to start a new life. But that also means that the Chinese gangs must have enforcers in South Korea who ensure that payments are made.

Escape from Misery

North Korea had been severely affected by a disruption in trading ties with its former communist allies in the late 1980s. The former Soviet Union ceased providing aid in 1987. More devastatingly, both the former Soviet Union in 1990 and China in 1992 demanded that North Korea pay standard international prices for goods, and that it paid in hard currency rather than through barter arrangements, as had previously been the case. This immediately affected petroleum imports to the degree that they declined to 30,000 tons in 1992, from 506,000 tons in 1989.

North Korea, a country that had been comparatively industrialized in the 1970s and 1980s, faced a severe crisis. Factories were forced to close because of electricity shortages. Lack of fuel for tractors and trucks, and no money to import fertilizers, caused agricultural production to decline. Then, the country was hit by devastating floods. The North Korean government, once proud of its independence and self-sufficiency, had to ask the United Nations and other international organizations to provide it with emergency food aid.

Until the early 1990s, North Korea had actually had a fairly well-organized food-distribution system, even if, as in other socialist countries, it was based on the division of the population into different social categories in order to exercise political control. Every town had a food-distribution center, where families could collect their food in exchange for coupons, which they had been given at their work places.

Sitting on the floor in a small apartment in a suburb of the South Korean capital Seoul, Park Yong, a short and soft-spoken man in his mid-20s from North Hamgyong province on North Korea's border with China, recalls that rations began to decrease in 1992: “But the real crisis began in August-September 1994, and by 1995 the food-distribution system had stopped altogether. People began to grow their own vegetables, and private vendors appeared in the streets, selling food at inflated prices. Many sold their belongings and then their homes.”

Divorces became more common and families broke up because many men, and some women, went to look for work elsewhere in towns. Hordes of kochebi—“wandering swallows,” the Korean term for wandering North Korean children and young people looking for food and shelter, could be seen in every corner of the country. Mr. Park was one of them. He roamed the countryside for nearly two years, stealing food here and there, and begging. Like so many others, he eventually made it across the border to China in 2001. He left the border areas together with his North Korean girlfriend and they ran into the South Korean embassy in Beijing on Oct. 27, 2002. Both were later flown to South Korea, together with about 30 other North Korean refugees.

It is not known how many people actually died during the famine—or how many people subsequently fled to China. Estimates of famine deaths vary between half a million to three million people; the number of refugees is estimated at anywhere between a low 30,000 to perhaps as many as 300,000 people. The uncertainty reflects the difficulty in getting any reliable data out of North Korea, and China's reluctance to be more open about the refugees has only exacerbated the situation. China routinely sends refugees back to North Korea, where many end up in labor camps—or are executed. Earlier this year, even an officer and a sergeant from North Korea's border guard patrol were sentenced to execution under the suspicion of receiving money for assisting refugees, the Web site the Daily North Korea reported in February this year.

North Korea's border with Russia is only 16.5 kilometers long and it is not easy to cross the Russian-North Korean stretch of Tumen River, so China—with which North Korea shares a 1,360-kilometer border—has turned out to be a somewhat easier destination for North Korean refugees.

Across the border in China, there is also a sizable ethnic Korean minority, living mainly in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Helping the refugees is deemed a criminal offense in China, but, even so, many Chinese-Koreans and others are willing to risk helping their kinsmen from North Korea. In December 2001, an ethnic Korean in Yanbian was arrested and fined 20,000 yuan ($2,400) for harboring North Korean refugees in his house. In the same month, Chun Ki Won, a South Korean pastor, was arrested on the Sino-Mongolian border while he was assisting a group of 12 North Koreans trying to escape to Mongolia. He was jailed for seven months, and then expelled from China after a trial and a 50,000 yuan fine. In late October 2002, Hiroshi Kato, a Japanese humanitarian worker, was also arrested in China for helping North Korean refugees. He was released after a week in custody, and only then after strong representations had been made by the Japanese government.

The plight of the North Korean refugees in China is one of the world's best hidden tragedies. The men are exploited and often not paid even the pitiful salaries they have been promised. Young North Korean women often end up being raped and trafficked to other parts of China where they are sold as “wives” or prostitutes. In recent years, China has also strengthened border controls and began to conduct house-to-house searches to look for North Koreans hiding in villages in Yanbian and elsewhere along the border.

A large detention center for the refugees—who the Chinese euphemistically call “defectors,” as China has never recognized any political or economic refugees from North Korea—has been built near the Tumen border river, where they are kept before being sent back to North Korea. On the other side of the border, a string of new detention facilities has been set up to punish those forcibly repatriated from China. But, at the same time, corruption is rampant among North Korean border guards; people who cross the Tumen and Yalu rivers into China can pay around 1,000 yuan for the guards to let them pass. On the Chinese side, more bribes can also be paid, if the refugees can afford it.

Given the uncertainty—and the risks of being apprehended and repatriated—in the border areas, it is hardly surprising that the North Koreans who can afford it try to escape deeper into China and beyond. Desperate refugees—like Mr. Park and his girlfriend—forced their way into foreign missions and international schools in Beijing and other Chinese cities. On their own initiative, or assisted by human traffickers, scores of North Koreans made it into the South Korean embassy, and, in May 2002, 25 North Korean asylum seekers rushed into the Spanish embassy in the Chinese capital. They were eventually allowed to continue to South Korea, but following that incident the Chinese authorities set up barbed wire fences around several diplomatic compounds in Beijing.

Tightening the Noose

The North Koreans then began to head for third countries contiguous to China. Until a few years ago, many made it to Mongolia, often helped by South Korean church workers there and in China. Kim Mi Ran, a petite 25-year old woman from North Korea's mountainous northeast, was one of them. She had first crossed the border to take up what she had been told was a well-paid job. She arrived to discover that she had been sold into marriage to an old man. It was three years until she escaped his clutches, fleeing to China's Inner Mongolia and from there on foot through the Gobi Desert to independent, and now democratic, Mongolia. In its capital, Ulaanbaatar, she contacted the South Korean embassy and was flown to Seoul, where she arrived in December 2001. Now, she is one of around 8,000 North Koreans, who have been resettled in the south since the 1990s.

Since she managed to escape more than five years ago, the border between China and Mongolia has become heavily guarded, making it almost impossible for North Koreans to use that route. North Koreans then chose to travel south through China into Vietnam and Cambodia. But after the Vietnamese allowed 468 North Korean refugees to be flown to South Korea in July 2004, border controls were substantially tightened even there. A few refugees have since then trickled into Burma, but that is viewed as an extremely dangerous route as it goes through militarized areas controlled by the United Wa State Army and other drug-trafficking groups. Through China, sparsely populated Laos and into Thailand is now the most widely used route for North Korean refugees. While human traffickers escort them through China and Laos, South Korean church groups assist them after they have arrived in northern Thailand.

Kim He-shim, a 16-year old North Korean female refugee in Thailand who arrived here in the company of four other teenagers, tells that she crossed the border into China in mid-2006. On the other side, they were met by a “Chinese man” who eventually took them to the town of Changbai in Jilin province, bordering North Korea. Then her story gets hazier, and it is obvious that she is omitting crucial details about how she traveled through China. The South Korean interpreter who helps the Thai police says that once the refugees enter China they are in the hands of the gangs, and once they are set ashore on the Thai side of the Mekong River —the border between Thailand and Laos—they are warned that they could be killed if they divulge any information about their journey.

Ms. Kim only says that she and her friends traveled by “train, bus, taxi and truck” and she mentions that they had to wait in Beijing for a while. All the while she and a small group of her compatriots were escorted by “Chinese men” as they passed from town to town. Eventually they reached an area in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan close to the Lao border. There the car stopped, she says, and they had to walk over steep border mountains into Laos, where another car was waiting to take them to the Mekong River. They continued by boat—at night—down to the small town of Chiang Saen in Thailand, where the traffickers instructed them to take a bus to Chiang Rai, a bigger town in northern Thailand. There, they reported themselves to the Thai police.

The Fortunate Few

As news of her and others' safe passage spreads inside North Korea, the more popular the underground route to Thailand has become—and that is causing problems for the Thai authorities. Thailand is caught in the middle as North Korea's third-largest trade partner—after China and South Korea—and as a staunch ally of the U.S., North Korea's most vocal critic together with Japan. Thailand does not want the refugee issue to upset its growing economic ties with North Korea, but obviously cannot afford to antagonize the U.S. and South Korea—an even larger bilateral trade and investment partner than North Korea—by treating the refugees harshly. And, as the Thai English-language daily the Nation pointed out in an editorial in November last year, since the coup in Thailand last September, “Thailand's reputation has been at stake and its diplomatic actions are very much under the world's microscope. Any perceived harsh response … will immediately be seized upon by international human-rights and nongovernmental organizations.”

Just before the Thai coup, 261 North Korean refugees were apprehended at two different locations in Bangkok and brought to a detention facility in the Thai capital. But that appears to have been an anomaly. Thus, the Thai authorities are likely to show the North Korean refugees leniency for foreseeable future. And more refugees are expected this year. Although the situation in North Korea has improved somewhat since the famine in the 1990s, food is still scarce. Another famine may also be imminent, argues South Korean reporter Kim Min-se in the Daily North Korea in February this year, noting “expectations of mass starvation this spring.” He quotes a South Korean NGO as saying: “2007 might be the most disastrous year for many North Koreans.”

At the same time, outside influences are beginning to reach many ordinary citizens in what long has been one of the world's most isolated nations. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there has been a rapid increase in the number of people who are tuning into foreign broadcasting stations.

Yet the North Koreans who have taken refuge across the border in China hardly pose any threat to the regime, and the number of North Korean refugees who have made it to South Korea is, after all, still relatively small. As Russian North Korea expert Andrei Lankov points out in a chapter of a December 2006 report by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, titled The North Korean Refugee Crisis: Human Rights and International Response, half a million East Germans fled to West Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. But even if it will not lead to a regime change in Pyongyang, the number of refugees is increasing and it is causing a humanitarian crisis. As it deepens, China is coming under pressure to uphold its international obligations, including those relating to human rights.

In the final analysis, it is the situation—politically as well as economically—inside North Korea that has to improve considerably. As long as misery prevails in the country, the stream of refugees through China to Thailand is likely to continue, and unscrupulous gangs will go on profiting from other people's misfortune and dreams of a better life outside North Korea. But with North Korea defying and antagonizing the international community by playing the nuclear card, and doing precious little to vitalize its moribund economy, that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, June, 2007

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