A beautiful North Korean woman this week described Thailand as a ‘beacon of hope at the end of a long journey’ as she recounted her flight from North Korea in 2008.

Hyeonseo Lee, the North Korean woman who finally made it to Bangkok this week. In 2008 she boarded a flight from Shanghai in China to Bangkok via Seoul but sought refuge in South Korea. In Bangkok This week she praised Thailand’s role in assisting North Koreans and described the country as a ‘beacon of hope at the end of a long journey’.

At the beginning of 2008 Hyeonseo Lee used a fake passport to board a flight from China to Bangkok. At a stopover in Seoul she asked for asylum as a North Korean seeking refuge from the regime in Pyongyang.

North Korean told that Thailand  was a country of ‘low status’

Speaking to reporters after she finally made it to Bangkok this week, she said she was surprised at the vast scale of the metropolis having being told in North Korea that Thailand was a country of ‘low status’. She was in Bangkok to highlight the important role that Thailand plays in helping North Koreans achieve freedom.

Escape route for North Koreans highlights Thailand’s position

Figures from South Korea in 2011 show that 95% of North Koreans arriving in that country made their way through Thailand. One commentator in Bangkok feels that the question of North Koreans seeking refuge highlights the delicate role of Thailand in terms of human trafficking. The issue of the movement of North Korean defectors who often pass through Thailand in order to ultimately find sanctuary in South Korea. It is reported that the vast majority of Korean refugees who manage to make their way to South Korea do so through China, Laos and Thailand. One of the reasons for this is the tightening of border controls in other countries including China, Vietnam and Burma in recent years. Word of mouth among North Korean defectors is that the route through Thailand is the most favorable.

North Korean defectors shows just why more understanding required for Thailand on the human trafficking issue

In recent months Thailand has come under fire from both the American and EU authorities in relation to the problem of human trafficking. Indeed the question of human trafficking has now risen even higher on the agenda of the Thai government as potential sanctions could have a crippling effect on the Thai economy which is already facing challenges. The Thai  government has vehemently defended its handling of the human trafficking and has even launched extensive programmes in all areas of the country to combat the issue. One Bangkok commentator feels that Thailand is being unjustly treated by the US and the EU over the issue. ‘We must bear in mind that Thailand is an emerging economy which also has a demographic problem. There are many people from all over the  world but particularly South East Asian countries who want to live and work in Thailand and in many ways Thailand is a liberal and open country with a light touch when it comes to law enforcement. It is a cultural thing,’ says Joseph Anthony, a foreign media journalist based in Bangkok. ‘We must also look behind this word human trafficking and become a little bit more open minded. Europe itself has found itself adjusting and scrambling to cope with the immigration of migrants from Syria and Africa. This of course is also human trafficking.’

Sensitive, diplomatic and pragmatic approach of Thai authorities on North Koreans seeking to escape to South Korea

The Thai government adapts a pragmatic but delicate approach to the situation. Indeed the government in Bangkok has stopped releasing figures which showed a remarkable rise from 2004 to 2011 of the numbers of North Koreans who have managed to escape from brutal communist dictatorship during that period. The policy of the Thai government is to arrest North Koreans entering the country illegally and to process them officially often detaining them and imposing minor sanctions.

Thailand maintains friendly ties with North Korea

Indeed the Thai government maintains friendly contact and relations with the regime in Pyongyang and does not according refugee status to North Koreans  fleeing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Thai authorities however are able to deport the North Koreans to South Korea legally as South Korea officially recognises North Koreans as citizens of that country.

‘I think most people would agree that the Thai government’s approach to defectors from North Korea is a positive one when considered from all the angles, it is tactful and also  respectful to the other countries involved while achieving a positive outcome for the misfortunate people who risk everything in their flight from tyranny,’ says Joseph Anthony.

Arrest of US missionary in Thailand highlights complexities of the issue

This complex and ironic situation was further highlighted in July 2015 when Thai immigration police in Nong Khai province had an arrest warrant issued by a court for a US missionary Lee Isaac Byundo. Mr. Lee, it was reported, has worked in Thailand for the last twenty years as a missionary and was contacted by an American citizen in Laos in order to help a group of North Korean defectors who crossed the border into Thailand from Laos across the Mekhong river in June 2015. The North Koreans, comprised of six men and woman, were arrested by Thai police who tracked the car that they had travelled in from security cameras along the roads.  Police Colonel Pallop Suriyakul commander of Nong Khai immigration police explained to reporters that the seven North Koreans had family in South Korea and that the groups would not be deported back to North Korea if the South Korean authorities offered them sanctuary.

 UN report condemns atrocities of North Korean regime

In 2015, the UN published a report  widespread human rights abuses being committed by the stalinist regime in Pyongyang. The report highlighted vast and extensive prison camps and the wholesale murder of large numbers of North Koreans who opposed the regime.

‘I don’t think anyone  would condemn the US missionary here as a human trafficker yet this man was in breach of Thai law and the Thai authorities to the appropriate action. I think the issue of North Korean defectors highlights to us that the question of human trafficking must be approached with an open mind and we must bear in mind all the circumstances,’  says Joseph Anthony.

Journey of freedom from North Korea routes through Thailand

Most North Korean defectors begin their journey by crossing the Tumen River into China and make their ways by bus or on foot to the south of the country. This is a hazardous journey and many are picked up by the authorities and sent back while others are exploited by human traffickers who make them work to pay back debts. It is reported that many North Korean women end up working as prostitutes while North Korean men end up in hard labour occupations. Many pay human trafficking agents or brokers fees as high $5,000 although often lower, to arrange the journey. There are also authoritative reports of North Korean women being forced into prostitution in China being sold and bartered by unscrupulous human traffickers. It is thought that many who have relatives in North Korea now favour a route through Thailand as a means of escape.

Bangkok Immigration detention centre plays key role

Most defectors who arrive in Thailand end up passing through the Bangkok Detention center where processes are in place to  resettle them but this also includes prosecution under Thai law. One report estimates that ninety five per cent of North Koreans who arrive in Thailand as refugees seek to be sent to South Korea. Once the North Korean refugees are deported to South Korea they are offered the opportunity to participate in integration courses by the South Korean authorities who provide a range of extensive supports including cash, accommodation and an introduction to education in order that they can settle into life in South Korea.

Tightening of escape points and worry about relatives in North Korea

Many find a difficult process but are overjoyed to have made it while this is tempered by thoughts of relatives who still live in the communist north. It is reported that many extended families of those who defect are targeted by the regime in Pyongyang and there are also reports of a tightening of border controls and restrictions on the defection route out. The BBC and many western TV networks have focused attention on the plight of this group in recent years but for Thailand and the Thai authorities, it highlights the delicate situation that Thailand finds itself in as a relatively free country at the crossroad of South East Asia with an open economy and open borders while trying to maintain respectful and friendly relationships with all other countries.