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Hundreds of North Korean Defectors Transit Through Thailand on Trek to Freedom

Thailand's policy of not deporting refugees has resulted in a growing number of North Koreans making the kingdom a final stop in their trek to freedom. Activists say the number of North Koreans using Thailand for their jump to South Korea or the United States has gone from a handful to several hundred over the past year. In the third of a four-part series, VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok that for impoverished North Korean defectors, their time at the jump-off point to freedom is spent in fear and hiding.

"My heart still beats fast for fear that someone will come to arrest me. I cannot live like this," a North Korean defector exclaimed.

The young woman, like hundreds of others over the past year, arrived in Thailand from China by traveling through Laos on foot and then crossing the Mekong River - fighting hunger and bandits along the way in an area known as the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Laos, Burma, and Thailand meet. It has long been a center for trafficking of drugs and people.

The young North Korean woman paid smugglers a few dollars to bring her across the river, and began a period of waiting. Those who want to go to South Korea simply turn themselves in to the nearest police station, where they are processed and turned over to South Korean authorities.

Those who want to go to the United States have a longer wait - usually several months in which they face arrest and weeks in jail for entering Thailand without visas.

The defector says, "I hope every day that I can go to America very soon. Of course, Thailand is much safer than China because in China, if I am arrested I surely will be sent back to North Korea. But in Thailand, I have never heard I'll be sent back to North Korea."

Thailand quietly processes refugees and hands them over to third countries willing to accept them. However, concerned about harming relations with North Korea and fearing an onslaught of refugees, the Thai government does not publicize its policy.

Thai laws ban the North Koreans from working. They live in hiding, out of the sight and out of the minds of most Thai people. Thailand's new prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, seemed to know little about the subject when he was recently asked what his administration's policy will be on North Korean refugees.

SAMAK: "Do they have any here? How much?”

REPORTER: "It started three or four years ago by dozens, but last week it went up to several hundreds."

SAMAK: "Several hundreds, few hundreds…and the question is the policy - can not answer now. … Especially on North Koreans. I just wonder why? Is this a sanctuary?"

It is here that the defectors get their first taste of freedom. A 34-year-old defector describes her first impression of life outside her homeland.

"One thing I realized here, and also in China, as soon as I was away from North Korea, is that if I decide to do anything, I feel that I can do it. It feels like paradise," she said.