Escape from North Korea: 5,000 mile trek to freedom
Desperate refugees head to South Korea - via China, Laos and Thailand. Exclusive report from Chiang Saen
Frightened and exhausted after a 5,000 mile hazardous trek through China and Laos to the relative safety of Thailand, 50 North Koreans seeking a better life in the southern part of their divided peninsula sit disconsolately in an abandoned police station on the Thai side of the broad Mekong River and count the days and hours until they can continue on the final stage of their journey to the promised land.
The group - the latest in a growing flood of North Korean refugees paying traffickers around US$10,000 to smuggle them along this route to Seoul - includes three young children and a seven-month-old baby born somewhere en route in China. It has taken them 10 months to complete the journey.
The number of North Koreans arriving in Thailand from neighbouring Laos has risen fiftyfold in the past six years, according to official figures - from 46 in 2004 to 2,482 in 2010.
"But the actual number is probably much higher," according to the worried police chief of the Mekong river town of Chiang Saen, Colonel Phopkorn Kooncharoensook.
The Royal Thai Police officer has the task of detaining the illegal immigrants before passing them on to the immigration authorities at Thailand's northernmost border crossing, Mae Sai, where they are officially registered and transported to holding centres in Bangkok and Kanchanaburi.
South Korea's Bangkok embassy processes the migrants and sends all but suspected North Korean agents on direct flights to Seoul, where government agencies and local church groups help the new arrivals settle in.
The North Koreans are classed as illegal immigrants by Thai authorities, who nevertheless pass them on to the care of the South Korean Embassy in Bangkok rather than send them back to Laos or China.
"We leave it to the South Korean Embassy and the Thai authorities to make sure the North Koreans receive humane treatment," said a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok.
Police and provincial authorities in China also appear to turn a blind eye to the presence of North Korean transient refugees on their territory - reportedly bought off by trafficking organisations who escort the migrants on their long and arduous journey, much of it through mountainous terrain.
The migrants also take short-term casual employment along the way. "They usually arrive with enough money to support themselves," said Colonel Phopkorn. "Their first request is for advice on how to buy a Sim card for their mobile phone."
Although, officially confined to the immediate area of the Chiang Saen police station, the North Koreans are allowed to shop for provisions at the local market and attend services at a nearby Christian church.
The trafficking procedure that brought the group safely to Thailand appears to have been streamlined and made more secure since the first North Koreans attempted the journey more than 10 years ago.
"The first North Koreans to arrive in Chiang Saen were dirty, hungry and penniless," said a local guesthouse owner, who helped provide accommodation for the first migrants until the city's former police station was opened up as temporary quarters.
In the early years, many North Koreans attempting to cross China were captured by Chinese police and repatriated to North Korea, where they faced imprisonment and even execution. Nowadays, money smoothes the route for the refugees.
Nevertheless, unknown numbers fail to clear the first hurdle - the twin rivers Yalu and Tumen that form the already heavily patrolled border between North Korea and China. Winter, when the rivers are frozen, is a favored time to cross, but the migrants then have to survive severe weather conditions in the mountain ranges that block their way west.
Landlocked Laos, where 90 per cent of the country is mountainous, presents a huge challenge before the migrants arrive at the Mekong River border with Thailand. Few roads penetrate the Laotian mountains, and much of the journey has to be made on foot.
Exhaustion lines the faces of the young North Korean women waiting at Chiang Saen police station. Fear, too - they refuse to talk about their ordeal and flee at the sight of a camera.
The trafficking organisations have reportedly sworn them to secrecy on pain of retribution against the families they have left behind in North Korea. "These are very frightened people," confirmed Chiang Saen lawyer Sugint Dechkul. "They'll only relax when they reach South Korea."