News / Asia

    North Korean Refugees Seek Freedom Via Thailand

    A North Korean man offers a piggy ride to his sick compatriot as they are led from a police cell to an interrogation room at a police station in Pathum Thani province, north of Bangkok. (File)
    A North Korean man offers a piggy ride to his sick compatriot as they are led from a police cell to an interrogation room at a police station in Pathum Thani province, north of Bangkok. (File)

    Since 2004 the number of North Koreans arriving in Thailand each year has risen from just a few dozen to more than 2,000. North Koreans fleeing oppression in their homeland secretly travel across China and Laos to reach Thailand - where authorities generally do not send them back home. Most refugees eventually end up in South Korea.

    VOA’s Daniel Schearf spoke with Tomoharu Ebihara, a longtime activist who helps the refugees arriving in Thailand through his position as director of the Association for the Rescue of North Korea Abductees. They discussed why so many North Koreans come to Thailand, how long a typical journey can take and the ongoing case of a Thai woman allegedly kidnapped and held for years by North Korean authorities.

    Q: What can you tell me about the latest situation here in Thailand for North Korean refugees coming into the country?

    A: Since 5 or 6 years ago, Thailand is one of the most important destinations for North Korean refugees. The total number of North Korean refugees coming into Thailand this year, from January to December, should be around 2,000, and, including the past 5, 6 years about 10,000 North Korean refugees have come to Thailand.

    Q: What happened six years ago that made Thailand such a popular escape route?

    A: Until 5 or 6 years ago many refugees would go through Vietnam. The numbers were higher there than Thailand. The Vietnamese government sent 2 or 300 refugees to South Korea at one time. Then the North Korean government protested to Vietnam's government. After that, the standpoint of Vietnam's government switched on the issue of North Korean refugees. After that, most of North Korean refugees shifted to Thailand. Just a few refugees go to Vietnam now.

    They are strict with North Korean refugees who may be arrested and have to wait a very long time to be sent to a third country. So, it is surer to come to Thailand to be sent to a third country immediately after arriving.

    Q: Why is it that they come through Thailand?

    A: The main route for North Korean refugees is through northern China into Mongolia. But this route is sometimes difficult because of security by Chinese police. And, in the winter time the weather there is not very convenient for passing. It is too cold and too dangerous. But, the southern route through Laos and Thailand is possible to pass throughout the year. And, Thailand never makes the North Korean refugees go back to North Korea. The Thai government recognizes them as illegal entrants, not refugees, but actually never sends them back to North Korea.

    Q: Why are numbers of North Korean refugees increasing so dramatically in the last few years?

    A: The reason is not very clear. One of the reasons might be that the Chinese police in northern China around the Mongolian border are very strict on North Korean refugees but the route through southern China is not very strict yet.

    Q: What do the North Korean refugees tell you, the ones that you help, what do they say about the situation in North Korea?

    A: I don’t contact them directly. But, if I find out some refugees were arrested by Thai police I will bring some food, some clothes or tissue papers, and medicines. This is what I’m doing here.

    Q: When you deliver them food and medicine what kind of condition are they in?

    A: They are not very sick but have skin diseases or fevers, stomach aches. Not very serious but almost everybody has some health problem.

    Q: And when you talk to those North Koreans who are in Thai custody after coming into the country what kind of stories do they tell you about the difficulty of their journey?

    A: Refugees I met in South Korea told me that some of them take several years to get from North Korea to reach Thailand. Some of them can get down to Thailand in 3 or 4 months but most take several years. After they leave North Korea they stay in northern China several years. They might work there. But, of course they have no passport or status to work in China so they are afraid, scared to be arrested by Chinese police. And, sometimes Chinese gangsters will sell them, traffic them, especially women.

    A North Korean woman I met in South Korea told me that she was sold to Chinese men three or four times during her stay in China. The Chinese gangster made her marry a farmer in China. She escaped but was caught by a gangster again and sold to another Chinese farmer. This kind of story happens a lot.

    Q: With the death of Kim Jong Il do you expect that the numbers of North Korean refugees coming through Thailand will again increase dramatically?

    A: In the short term I don’t think the number will increase because the border control between North Korea and China is quite strict. The Chinese government sent around 2,000 soldiers to the border. So, within the next 2 or 3 months it will be quite difficult. But, after half a year, if there are any political problems concerning the new leader, they might start escaping from North Korea. The important thing is the Chinese standpoint. If they arrest North Korea refugees in northern China then none can come down to Thailand. But, if don’t arrest them the numbers might increase.

    Q: What is your organization's work on the issue of people abducted by North Korea?

    A: Since 1960 the North Korea government abducted foreigners, thousands of foreigners, around the world from at least 12 countries. It was done on the order of Kim Jong Il. And, we know that citizens from at least 12 countries including Thailand, the United States, Japan, South Korea, Romania, France, etc...

    And, from Thailand one woman from Chiang Mai was abducted (Anocha Panjoi, allegedly abducted by North Korean soldiers 33 years ago from Macao). I got to know this in 2005 from the testimony of (Charles Robert) Jenkins (American soldier who in 1965 fled his post in South Korea to North Korea to avoid serving in Vietnam and was not allowed to leave until 2004) in North Korea. Now he lives in Japan. He told us that while he lived in North Korea his neighbor was a Thai woman abducted from Macao and that they lived in the same area for about 10 years.

    In light of the change of power in Pyongyang, Tomoharu Ebihara is helping Anocha Panjoi's family to petition the Thai government to push for answers from North Korean authorities.

    You May Like

    US Lawmakers Vow to Continue Immigrant Program for Afghan Interpreters

    Congressional inaction threatens funding for effort which began in 2008 and has allowed more than 20,000 interpreters, their family members to immigrate to US

    Brexit's Impact on Russia Stirs Concern

    Some analysts see Brexit aiding Putin's plans to destabilize European politics; others note that an economically unstable Europe is not in Moscow's interests

    US to Train Cambodian Government on Combating Cybercrime

    Concerns raised over drafting of law, as critics fear cybercrime regulations could be used to restrict freedom of expression and stifle political dissent

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roari
    X
    June 28, 2016 10:33 AM
    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Baghdad Bikers Defy War with a Roar

    Baghdad is a city of contradictions. War is a constant. Explosions and kidnappings are part of daily life. But the Iraqi capital remains a thriving city, even if a little beat up. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on how some in Baghdad are defying the stereotype of a nation at war by pursuing a lifestyle known for its iconic symbols of rebellion: motorbikes, leather jackets and roaring engines.
    Video

    Video Melting Pot of Immigrants Working to Restore US Capitol Dome

    The American Iron Works company is one of the firms working to renovate the iconic U.S. Capitol Dome. The company employs immigrants of many different cultural and national backgrounds. VOA’s Arman Tarjimanyan has more.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora