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.