The Closing Door: North Korean Refugees Losing Escape Routes through Southeast Asia

By Jane Lee —

Aerial view of the Tumen River at Namyang Workers’ District in winter on the border between North Korea and China. North Korean refugees typically cross the frozen river before preceding through China to Southeast Asia to seek asylum. Source: Baycrest – Wikipedia user – CC-BY-SA-2.5.

According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, the number of North Koreans entering South Korea annually has decreased over time since the late 2000s. The continued dramatic decline was observed since Kim Jong-un assumed power at the end of 2011 — 1,502 refugees in 2012 down to 771 in 2019 compared with 2,914 in 2009. This downward trend has persisted despite the deteriorating human rights situation and deprivation in North Korea.  Amnesty International noted that the heightened security at the Sino-North Korean border has contributed to the decreased number of defectors. However, the bilateral repatriation treaties between China and North Korea are nothing new. China’s role in repatriating North Koreans has always been a consistent variable in influencing the number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea. Recent changes to policy and enforcement mechanisms in Southeast Asian countries like Laos and Thailand may instead explain the rapid decline in the number of North Korean defectors reaching South Korea.

The Freedom Train

The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, which technically acts as a border buffer, is one of the most heavily fortified borders on Earth, including a high-voltage electric fence. For this reason, the majority of North Korean refugees do not attempt to cross the border directly. Instead, almost all who want to reach South Korea must embark on an arduous route through China (despite a high risk of forced repatriation) and several Southeast Asian countries.

North Korean refugees cross the Tumen River to go to China typically in mid-winter after the Yalu and Tuman Rivers are frozen. Even with their vulnerable situation, refugees often choose to stay and work to earn money in China before their travel to Southeast Asia. Although some take the “Golden Triangle” route through Burma-Thailand-Laos, most choose the Laos-Thailand route.

China’s Repatriation Policy

Historically, China has been the biggest hurdle for North Korean refugees. The two bilateral treaties signed between China and North Korea in 1960 and 1986 state that any North Korean refugees found in China are to be repatriated back to North Korea without question. Those refugees returned to North Korea are regarded as traitors and sent to reeducation camps or prison, tortured, and in some extreme cases, executed. Human rights violations of repatriated refugees have been widely documented by consistent and overlapping testimonies from North Korean refugees who eventually settled in South Korea.

Maintaining these bilateral treaties in light of the repatriated refugees being subjected to human rights abuses is a direct violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention and UN Convention Against Torture — China is a signatory state to both. China does not regard North Korean escapees as “refugees,” but instead labels them as “economic migrants,” under the pretense that these people merely crossed the border illegally for better jobs and economic prosperity.

The Path through Laos: Policy Shift

In May of 2013, demonstrators gathered in front of the City Hall of Seoul with a picket sign in one hand and a candle in the other after it was reported that nine young North Koreans were forcefully repatriated to North Korea from Laos. These nine refugees were on their way to South Korea and were caught by Laotian border guards and quickly deported back to North Korea. This was the first time the Laos government publicly handed over North Korean refugees to North Korea.

In the past, North Korean refugees who made it to Laos were largely free from danger. At that time, Laos was quietly cooperating with South Korean officials by handing over thousands of North Korean refugees and helping them to safety. Based on Article 2 and Article 3, Chapter 1 of the South Korean constitution, North Koreans are regarded as South Korean citizens. Once they leave North Korea, the South Korean government views them as rightful citizens. Because of this concept, the government prioritizes reaching out to North Korean refugees in Southeast Asian countries like Laos to bring them to South Korea. Laos understood this and cooperated with South Korea until it changed its policy after the aforementioned incident of the nine North Korean refugees and began to forcibly send these refugees back to North Korea via China. This change not only caused anxiety for North Korean refugees but also perplexed the South Korean government.

Why the sudden policy change? There has been some speculation, mostly circulating around rumors that Kim Jong-un has provided some financial incentives to Laos in exchange for its cooperation. It also has been suspected that after the 2013 incident when the Laos government repatriated North Korean refugees to North Korea, two countries have met to sign an agreement to block the escape route by strengthening the border and the repatriation of North Korean defectors. Moreover, in March 2016, North Korean and Laotian security agencies signed an undisclosed bilateral treaty, which most likely included an agreement regarding the repatriation of North Korean refugees who cross through Laos, similar to the bilateral treaties between North Korea and China.

A more practical reason for Laos changing its stance may be due to China’s growing leverage on Southeast Asian countries. As a neighboring country that shares a border with an economic superpower, Laos has to pay very close attention to China’s stance on its regional issues in order to secure China as its largest investor as well as its second-largest trade partner. Laos’ economic ties have been amplified as China has been investing billions of dollars in developing Laos’ physical infrastructure such as hydroelectric plants, roads, and rails. The China-Laos railway project implemented through the Belt and Road Initiative, in particular, demonstrates Laos’ economic dependence on China. According to the World Bank, the country’s GDP remains around a little less than $18 billion in 2018. However, the cost for the China-Laos railway is estimated at almost $6 billion, with China contributing 70 percent and Laos covering the rest through loans from Chinese financial institutions.

Not only have economic ties between Beijing and Vientiane have grown, but also defense ties have strengthened since the late 1990s. Both countries have maintained traditional military-to-military relationships such as regular visits and holding annual meetings to discuss joint border surveillance collaboration. And in recent years, China has even gifted Laos military equipment to sustain their traditional bilateral military ties. Developing countries like Laos, dependent on China’s support, tread carefully to avoid instigating disputes with Beijing. Unfortunately, these increasing ties between the two countries seem to have impacted North Korean refugees.

The Shortcomings of Escaping through Thailand

Around 90 percent of North Korean refugees who seek asylum in South Korea make Thailand their final stop. Although Thailand holds the official stance of regarding these North Koreans as illegal migrants “subject to detention and deportation to the last country of embarkation,” the government practices a more lenient stance and unofficially collaborates with the South Korean government and even allocate spent funds until they are safely transported to Seoul.

Most refugees voluntarily surrender themselves at the nearest Thai police station as illegal migrants after crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. They are then arrested and placed in local detention centers as they wait for the Thai authorities to contact the South Korean embassy and report the presence of North Korean refugees. If all goes well, South Korean officials then send them safely to South Korea. According to one of the human rights activists involved in this process, “[Thai officials] don’t exactly welcome them because they’re illegal entrants. But the refugees know if they surrender, they’ll be safe in a detention center and handed over to the South Korean embassy.”

A leaked report by the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, Eric G. John, to Washington in 2009, notes that the treatment of North Korean refugees is highly subjective based on the Thai government’s “weighting of the value of the bilateral relations” with South Korea. After such calculations on bilateral relations were made, the government has cooperated with South Korea, allowing North Korean refugees to be sent to South Korea. Based on the ambassador’s report, the Thai government has stated that “Koreans [are to be] deported to Korea, with geographic distinctions between North and South conveniently blurred.”

In the same report, Ambassador John stated a number of factors that have affected Bangkok’s calculation. The first concern is the overflowing number of North Korean refugees in immigration jail, though the Thai government has not provided an official number of North Korean refugees who cross its border. Another factor is the effectiveness of the South Korean government in lobbying the Thai government to hand North Koreans over to the South Korean embassy. However, the South Korean government has also been cautious in publicly stating its cooperation with the Thailand. Ultimately, maintaining strong bilateral economic relations between the two countries, may have been the most influential factor in the Thai’s government decision to cooperate with South Korea.

Strategically speaking, Thailand has more economic and diplomatic benefits to gain by managing a favorable relationship with South Korea than those obtained from a relationship with North Korea. Thailand and South Korea have expanded their bilateral relationships in various fields, including infrastructure, water management, environment, national defense, economic, diplomatic, and culture. As of 2019, approximately 400 South Korean companies are conducting business in Thailand, indicating the significance of South Korea’s foreign direct investment. Moreover, the two countries’ annual trade volume reached a record high of $14 billion in 2018. The two countries have continued to strengthen their economic ties further by collaborating in technology industries. Intertwined economic ties and technology transfer between the two countries may have motivated Thailand to support  South Korea’s stance on North Korean refugees.

Necessity of Creating a Regional Body to Resolve the Issue

Due to Thailand’s sympathetic policy toward North Korean refugees, the number of North Koreans coming into the country has increased dramatically over the past decade. According to a report by the New Humanitarian in 2011, there were 46 North Korean escapees who were reported by Thailand’s Immigration Bureau in 2004. However, in 2010, a year before Kim Jong-un seized power, the number jumped to approximately 2,500, with numbers continually increasing over time. The South Korean government recently offered to build a coordination center near the Mekong River. However, the Thai government has refused the proposal due to concerns that doing so would encourage a greater influx of North Korean refugees. This refusal implies that Thailand is near its limit in handling and helping refugees without support from neighboring states.

In order to lessen the burden on Thailand, support from neighboring countries is essential. China, Laos, and Thailand represent stops on the most used route, but other neighboring countries like Vietnam and Mongolia are also affected by the influx of North Korean refugees. These countries should organize with South Korea’s support to tackle the issue at hand in a more transparent manner, perhaps by creating a regional organization and exploring a funding model to alleviate the burden on transit countries. The major challenge in establishing such regional body would be to convince China to support the organization’s goal to mend the North Korean human rights issue. Though this is easier said than done, fashioning a unified voice from partner countries and practical approaches may at least bring this issue to the table. A practical strategy to win China over and ultimately address North Korean human right issues should be dealt through a series of regional conferences with directly and indirectly affected countries.

A multinational approach that focuses on establishing a long-term pragmatic strategy should be pursued to help raise awareness of the issue with the hopes of preventing the escape route from becoming a permanently closed door.

Ms. Jane Lee is a former program coordinator with the Korea Chair at CSIS


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *