Sunday, June 12, 2011

North Korea defectors take to the “Underground Railroad”

06/12/2011 North Korea (GlobalPost) — In the beginning, they arrived in ones and twos across the Mekong River. They were dirty, skeleton-thin and scared to death. Sugint Dechkul, a small-town lawyer in Thailand’s far-northern Chiang Rai province, had no idea what to make of them. They’d wander up the riverside country road near his home, sometimes begging for food or shelter in an alien tongue.
“We’d ask, ‘Where are you from?’ They couldn’t answer,” Sugint said.

Finally, through painstaking pantomime, one of the stragglers conveyed his origins. North Korea, nearly 3,000 miles away. That was nine years ago. Today, the so-called “underground railroad” traveled by North Korean defectors increasingly terminates in Thailand.

In recent years, North Korean defectors’ network has discovered Thailand is the gateway to their dreams: resettlement in Seoul, South Korean citizenship and thousands in cash to start life a new life. Though this tropical nation is distant from the often chilly Korean peninsula, it is the nearest reachable ally of South Korea, which maintains a policy of financially aiding and patriating its divided kin.

“The first ones looked like they hadn’t showered in a month,” Sugint said. “My children begged us, saying ‘Mommy, Daddy, you have to help them.’ Now they come in big groups with kids on their back. They know their way and they know what they’re doing.”

The journey to Thailand can take months and the path is lined with informants and extortionists. Capture in neighboring China means certain deportation and quite possibly execution. If not killed, those returned to North Korea can expect slave labor in a string of camps believed to hold 200,000 prisoners.
But for North Korean defectors such as Joseph, who grew up starving under Dictator Kim Jong Il’s regime, the alternative was slowly wasting away on a family farm.
“We were starving,” said Joseph, using his English-language pseudonym. “So many people back home had died.”

Fleeing famine, Many escapees flee when the Yalu River, dividing China and North Korea, freezes over in
winter. But Joseph’s family simply found a shallow bend to swim across. They hoped that border guards would not spot them and fire their Kalashnikov rifles. Against the odds, they linked up with an underground Christian network managed in part by former defectors. Joseph, then 13, was taken aback by his first spoonfuls of pork and chicken while he was hiding out at a Chinese safe house.

“I had never really heard of these animals,” he said. A Chinese couple who sheltered his family at the risk of long prison terms also offered him a slice of birthday cake. It was spongy, sweet and somewhat repellant. “I didn’t like it at all. I had only eaten rice and vegetables that my parents grew.” Along with cake, the family who housed them introduced Joseph and his family to another foreign concept: Jesus.

“No one in North Korea knows about Christianity,” he said. “But they told me about it and I was saved. I know now that God had helped us many times.” Christianity, practiced by roughly one-third of South Koreans, is the de facto faith of the so-called “underground railroad” network, said a long-time activist with more than a decade’s experience on the circuit. (Source)

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