Malaysiakini NEWS

Journey of untold dangers await N Korean defectors

Mohd Haikal Mohd Isa, Bernama
Published:  |  Modified:

It is a journey of untold dangers and hardship for North Koreans who are brave enough to escape the grip of dictatorship for freedom in another country.

In recent years, hundreds, if not thousands of North Koreans, have put their lives on the line to cross the Tumen River separating the country with China, to begin a perilous journey, which they hope will bring them to South Korea.

"They (North Korean defectors) know that if they are captured, they'll face severe punishment, including being thrown into Soviet-era 'Gulag' hard labour camps," Tomoharu Ebihara from the Thai-based Association for the Rescue of North Korean Abductees (ARNKA) told Bernama recently.

In some cases, the Japanese national said death by execution faced those who are captured while trying to leave the communist country illegally. 

According to him, the number of defectors have declined since Kim Jong-un took over the country from his late father and ordered stricter punishments for those captured while trying to leave the country.

"He (Jong-un) has also ordered stricter monitoring and patrols at the North Korea-China border in a bid to discourage any would-be defectors," said Ebihara. 

He said once the defectors successfully crossed the Tumen River, which separates North Korea and China’s Jilin Province, they either stay and work in the country or make a quick dash for Yunnan province in southern China.

"From Yunnan province in southern China, the defectors enter Laos and travel further down to Mekong River which separates Thailand and Laos," he said, on the usual route taken by North Korean defectors.

For North Korean defectors, he said, the journey to go to South Korea could take up to a year or longer, if they are not caught by their host country and repatriated, which means suffering probable death. 

Ebihara disclosed that there are defectors who did not have the knowledge on how to reach South Korea, exposing them to exploitation by human smuggling syndicates.

There are also reports of defectors taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers to do hard and risky jobs for a meagre salary.

Several South Korean non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including Christian missionary groups, he said, stationed their members at the North Korea-China border to lend assistance to the defectors.

Ebihara also disclosed that despite succeeding in leaving North Korea, the defectors faced continuous threats from Pyongyang's agents, who followed them and in cases discovered several years ago, "disguised" themselves as defectors. 

"They (North Korean agents) disguise themselves as defectors to enter South Korea but their disguises were uncovered upon interrogation by the South Korean authorities," he said.

Members of NGOs and Christian missionaries who assist defectors at the border have also suddenly "disappeared", believed abducted by North Korean agents, he added. 

According to Ebihara, his association had over the years, rendered assistance to North Korean defectors who managed to reach Thailand after enduring months or years of journey encompassing several countries.

ARNKA, he said, cooperated with the local authorities in handing over various supplies to the North Korean defectors detained in the Immigration Detention Centre (IDC), before their resettlement in South Korea.

He estimated that about 400 to 500 North Koreans managed to reach Thailand last year, a drop from previous years.

- Bernama

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