Laos Is Now a Major Transit Point for North Korean Defectors

2005-11-22
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Map of Laos, showing the northern provinces and borders with China and Thailand. Image: courtesy of World Factbook

BANGKOK—North Koreans fleeing hunger and oppression are increasingly making the risky journey through China to Laos, with the aim of entering Thailand and seeking political asylum, RFA’s Korean service reports.

“If they can make it to Thailand, they are safe,” Thailand-based missionary Jun-hwan Kim said in an interview.

“If they are caught in Laos or Burma, they are sent to China. But if they are caught in Thailand, they are sent to the immigration camp,” said Kim, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

All North Asians who are in the province are holders of valid Chinese passports. Some of them speak Chinese, and they look alike.

Conservative estimates by international non-governmental groups put the number of North Korean defectors in hiding in China in the tens of thousands, while others say hundreds of thousands may be more accurate.

China regards North Koreans fleeing hunger and repression in the isolated Stalinist state as economic migrants, whom it repatriates under an agreement with Pyongyang.

Defectors report frequent abuse from Chinese security forces, as well as being rounded up and sent back against their will to face imprisonment and possible execution.

Kim said he knew of about 30 North Koreans who had already crossed the border from Laos into Thailand and were currently staying in Korean churches in Bangkok.

If they can make it to Thailand, they are safe. If they are caught in Laos or Burma, they are sent to China. But if they are caught in Thailand, they are sent to the immigration camp.

“Some of them are captured at the Thailand border and sent to the immigration camp,” Kim said.

“I saw six men and six women in the camp and six people in [the northern town of] Chiang Mai. If we include all of them, the number of North Koreans who crossed the border might be higher,” he added.

Lao official cites one-year visas

According to Lao officials, Chinese nationals holding valid passports are allowed to cross freely into the three northern provinces of Bokeo, Oudomxay and Luang Prabang without visas for up to one year, after which they must seek an extension of their stay.

A provincial-level official in Laos told RFA’s Lao service that the authorities could not tell if some of those Chinese passport-holders were in fact North Koreans.

“All North Asians who are in the province are holders of valid Chinese passports,” the official said. “Some of them speak Chinese, and they look alike.”

Risky journey

Kim said the off-road trip through the mountains from Laos was risky for defectors, especially when the authorities stepped up border checks during the narcotics-trafficking season.

“The guards are tight in the area and North Koreans’ attempts to enter Thailand could coincide with a drug monitoring period,” Kim said. “If North Koreans try to enter Thailand during these times, they could be in big trouble.”

He said he had received a call for help from North Koreans inside Laos in recent weeks but had been frustrated in his attempt to cross the border.

The guards are tight in the area and North Koreans’ attempts to enter Thailand could coincide with a drug monitoring period. If North Koreans try to enter Thailand during these times, they could be in big trouble.

Kim took 13 hours himself to travel from the Thai border town of Chiang Khong to Laos’s Louangnamtha province where the North Korean defectors were hiding.

“Two weeks ago, 46 people asked for rescue help, so I went to Laos. However, we encountered a problem on the border in China, and four of them were captured and two of them were being pursued,” he said. “We tried really hard, but there was nothing we could do to cross the Chinese border, and we just had to return.”

“Many North Koreans are still trying to go to Thailand,” he told RFA reporter Wonhee Lee.

Missing man drew attention to Lao route

Although most North Korean refugees flee their native country through China, increasing numbers are believed to be fleeing through Southeast Asia instead—with the ultimate goal of reaching South Korea.

Around the end of 2004, Korean-American missionary Jeffrey Park disappeared along the Chinese border with Burma and Laos, as he tried to shepherd six North Korean defectors to safety.

The 63-year-old Park, who is known in Korean as Park Junjae, was working with the Seoul-based Durihana Missionary Center and had intended to accompany six North Koreans from Yanji, China in November to the Chinese-Burmese border, according to Cheon Kiwon, director of the mission. But they ended up heading for Laos instead.

According to one account, Park went missing somewhere along the so-called “southern route” that takes North Korean defectors to Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. This route runs through notoriously steep and rugged terrain.

Original reporting in Korean by Wonhee Lee, and in Lao by RFA’s Lao service. Korean service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Lao service director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.

Original reporting in Korean

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CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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