Gang of ‘snakeheads’ offer only way out for many North Koreans


Story Highlights

CNN’s David McKenzie spends time with recent defector from North Korea

He recounted the harrowing escape to China, which was only the beginning of his journey to South Korea

China will repatriate defectors forced to use smuggling rings to flee regime

Thailand is the “promised land” and the authorities will send them to South Korea

Sino-North Korean border

Lee rubbed his chin with his index finger; his face was hidden by a blue baseball cap. We sat in the back of a taxi next to a frigid river near northeast China’s desolate border with North Korea.

He traveled with Chinese smuggling rings, or “snakeheads.” When he escaped, they provided him with food and clothing.

Li spoke intermittently.

“I’m a soldier,” he said, “I did some things on the base, but I had to flee.”

Lee will not reveal what he did, and for his safety we cannot reveal his real name. He wants to protect his wife and children in North Korea. For whatever reason, this forced him to flee like thousands before him.

READ: Beaten, starved in POW camp

UN officials, human rights activists and smugglers say North Korean refugees face a daunting journey seeking asylum in South Korea. Getting into China is often the easiest part of the process.

“We all know how to escape to China. Many North Koreans know how to do it,” Lee said.

underground network

Over the years, an established underground network has brought refugees like Lee out.

Charities and South Korean evangelical groups run an underground railway for North Koreans from the booming border city of Dandong in China. But in recent years, the Chinese government has tightened border controls and cracked down on these groups.

Refugees now have to rely on smugglers.

“They have to operate in the shadows because if they come out of North Korea and get noticed, they will be sent back,” said Jeremy Douglas, a regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

China has a unified policy of sending refugees back to the authoritarian regime they fled. In fact, China does not refer to the fleeing North Koreans as refugees at all. They called them “illegal economic immigrants”.

Last month, South Korean news agency Yonhap News Agency reported that Chinese police had arrested 11 North Korean defectors as they tried to enter Myanmar, which borders China to the south. One of them was only seven years old.

North Koreans face a barrage of human rights abuses if they are captured and returned, experts say.

A condemning United Nations report on the human rights situation in North Korea stated that “those who are forcibly returned from China are routinely subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, summary executions, forced abortions and other forms of sexual violence”.

READ: Will the UN take action on North Korea’s abuses?

The report calls on China to allow the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) access to fleeing North Koreans, but China is currently not allowing this.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said: “Frankly, China has shamelessly violated its international obligations. China has ratified the Refugee Convention and should treat those fleeing North Korea as refugees.”

Fear of North Korean influx

In a written submission to the United Nations, China dismissed “baseless allegations” about China in the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea and suggested the study was politicized.

China does not allow the UN Commission to investigate what is happening inside China.

Robertson said China was concerned that North Koreans would flood into China if rules on defectors were relaxed. The Communist Party fears any instability in North Korea or within its borders, so the argument is strong.

The journey to Seoul was difficult due to China’s policy.

“People have to use smuggling rings to get out of North Korea. There are pre-determined safe passages and a steady stream of people are making the journey,” said UNODC’s Douglas.

North Koreans often try to travel in small groups, he said.

According to Human Rights Watch, North Koreans regularly change cars and travel overland from the border to Laos. Traveling by train or plane is impossible as they have no paperwork.

But last year, the Laotian government sent a group of young North Korean defectors back to North Korea via China, raising alarm among human rights groups.

READ: Close to freedom, then sent back

If North Koreans cross the border into China and somehow manage to evade Chinese security authorities thousands of miles, they must sneak across Laotian territory and into Thailand.

“Thailand is the promised land,” Robertson said, because North Koreans found there would be deported to South Korea.

“Thailand thinks it can send North Koreans to South Korea because the South Korean constitution states that all North Koreans are South Korean citizens,” he said.

However, when they arrived in South Korea, Robertson said the story was not over. Smugglers must be paid. The South Korean government provides North Korean defectors with “startup funds,” which, as the name suggests, are cash to help them settle down. But many ended up using it to pay off debts to smugglers and brokers. If they can’t pay, smuggling can turn into human trafficking, Robertson said.

But Lee is only at the beginning of this long journey. He said Chinese smugglers provided him with clothes and food, and he hopes to meet us in Seoul one day.

Despite all the risks, he was determined to make it happen.

“If there is time in the future, let’s meet and talk,” he said.

Opinion: A critical moment for human rights in North Korea


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