CABLE: NORTH KOREAN REFUGEES\’ UNDERGROUND RAILROAD MAKING

MORE FREQUENT STOPS IN NORTHERN THAILAND
“”65369″,”5/25/2006 5:07″,”06CHIANGMAI79″,”Consulate Chiang Mai”,
“CONFIDENTIAL”,””,”VZCZCXRO6936
PP RUEHDT RUEHHM
DE RUEHCHI #0079/01 1450507
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 250507Z MAY 06
FM AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0194
INFO RUEHCHI/AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI PRIORITY 0224
RUEHBK/AMEMBASSY BANGKOK PRIORITY 0476
RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS
RUEHUL/AMEMBASSY SEOUL PRIORITY 0001
RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING PRIORITY 0024
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 0006
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 0001
RUEHCN/AMCONSUL CHENGDU PRIORITY 0030
RUEHSH/AMCONSUL SHENYANG PRIORITY 0015
RUEHUM/AMEMBASSY ULAANBAATAR PRIORITY 0001″,”C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 CHIANG MAI 000079

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 5/25/2016
TAGS: PREF, PGOV, TH, KN
SUBJECT: NORTH KOREAN REFUGEES\’ UNDERGROUND RAILROAD MAKING MORE
FREQUENT STOPS IN NORTHERN THAILAND

CHIANG MAI 00000079 001.2 OF 004

CLASSIFIED BY: John Spykerman, Political Officer, Consulate
General , State Dept.
REASON: 1.4 (d)

Classified by PolOff John Spykerman for Reason 1.4 (d).

(C) SUMMARY. The flow of North Korean refugees crossing the
Mekong River into northern Thailand appears to be increasing, as
local Royal Thai Government (RTG) immigration and border police
say they are at a loss on how to effectively manage the growing
number of North Koreans who enter Thailand illegally after
spending months on an Underground Railroad-style trek through
China and into Thailand. Meanwhile, evidence suggests that the
stream of refugees is unlikely to decrease, with a network of
Christian missionary organizations in Thailand and southern
China cooperating to bring in more refugees through Yunnan
province, Burma, and Laos and into Thailand\’s Chiang Rai
province, where most are detained and later sent for refugee
processing in Bangkok and then on to South Korea. END SUMMARY.

2. (SBU) For several years, North Korean refugees have
escaped their home country and, with the help of missionary
organizations and paid travel brokers, made their way south
through China and the Mekong River. Refugees can spend months or
even years transiting China, an experience that leaves them
vulnerable to exploitation and extortion. But increasing numbers
are willing to take the risk. So far this year, Chiang Rai
immigration officials have detained more than 100 North Koreans,
compared to 108 in all of 2005 and just 29 in 2004.

3. (SBU) Following the arrest of an AmCit charged with
transporting undocumented North Koreans in Chiang Rai, PolOff
discussed the refugee issue with local officials and others
familiar with missionary operations in northern Thailand and
southern China. What emerged was a clearer picture of the path
refugees take to reach Thailand, the lengthy process of
detainment and transport to Bangkok, the role of missionary
organizations in fostering these refugee movements, and the
struggles faced by local officials and the refugees themselves
once they arrive in Thailand. In addition, there are hints that
future challenges await should this trend continue to overwhelm
local authorities\’ ad hoc means of dealing with the issue.

The Long Road to Thailand, and Then Another Long Road to Bangkok
——————————————— ————–
————————

4. (C) The journey from North Korea to Thailand is long,
arduous, and costly. Based on police reports and discussions
with those who have met the refugees, the North Koreans tend to
be women with children or older men, and only occasionally
working age males. According to one person who has assisted RTG
police with Korean translation, the refugees often spend months
in China, working illegally to raise the funds to continue their
trek to Thailand. Because of their illegal status in any of the
countries they transit, they often endure exploitation and
extortion by employers, travel brokers, and local law
enforcement officials. Help does exist, however, in the form of
Christian missionaries and churches, which assist some refugees
to move through China and aid them once they arrive in Thailand.

5. (C) After reaching Yunnan province in southern China,
refugees and their handlers attempt to blend in with the growing
flow of river trade moving downstream to Southeast Asia. After a
brief stop in Burma or Laos to plot their entry, refugees cross
into Thailand in groups of 6-10 people. Handlers accompany the
refugees into Burma or Laos and coordinate their crossing of the
Mekong, with some reports estimating that several hundred North
Koreans are waiting in Muang Mom district in Laos to cross into
Thailand. Chiang Rai officials expressed frustration that their
counterparts in Laos and Burma were unwilling to coordinate to
better patrol the Mekong for undocumented foreigners. Since
North Koreans are trying to reach Thailand anyway, officials in
Laos and Burma apparently prefer that the refugees make their
way unhindered as quickly as possible through their countries.

6. (C) Most refugees attempt to cross the Mekong at three
points in Chiang Rai province – near the towns of Chiang Saen
and Chiang Khong opposite Laos, and Mae Sai opposite Burma.
These three river ports, located in Thailand\’s tip of the remote
Golden Triangle border area, are the most convenient and safest
places to cross. Police say refugees arrive well-dressed with
two changes of clothes and around 300-400 yuan (about USD 40-50)

CHIANG MAI 00000079 002.2 OF 004

on hand. Once on land, most are quickly spotted by law
enforcement and brought to the local jail. There an initial
assessment is made and within two days they are sent to Chiang
Rai for prosecution (normally a 1,000-baht fine, about USD 25,
or five more days in jail). Following that, refugees move to an
immigration detention center in Mae Sai for up to a month before
being transported to Bangkok, where the RTG, the UN High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and South Korean Embassy
resolve their cases.

A Modern Day Underground Railroad
——————————————— –

7. (C) The May 6 arrest of AmCit Phillip Martin, a
26-year-old college student living in Chiang Rai initially
charged with helping six North Koreans cross the border
illegally at Chiang Saen, drew attention to the role Christian
missionaries play in the operation of the Underground
Railroad-style network of refugee movement. Although Martin
first came to Thailand as a missionary six years ago, a
subsequent investigation of his case has led post to conclude
that he was probably not part of an operation to smuggle
refugees into the country, and that he likely, as he said,
picked up the refugees on a road near the river thinking they
were Japanese tourists who had missed the last bus back into
town. Police told PolOff they have reached the same conclusion
and hope to bring the formal charges to an end shortly. However,
investigations by post and local police into this case and
others reveal hints of a complex network of organizations
throughout Asia working to help refugees escape North Korea,
transit China, and reach UN or Republic of Korea Government
(ROKG) offices in SE Asian capitals.

8. (C) A Chiang Rai police report given to PolOff lists some
organizations in Thailand that police suspect to be behind the
refugee flow, including the Korean Presbyterian Mission in
Thailand, which has an office in Chiang Rai. Provincial
officials estimate there are about 700 Korean nationals living
in the province, most involved in missionary work. Korean and
American (including Korean-American) missionaries are
well-represented in northern Thailand. Most Christian
organizations cater to local hill tribes, but some take
advantage of Thailand\’s relatively secure confines to serve as
bases of support for missionaries in neighboring countries, such
as China, where operations are forced underground.

9. (C) Because of ongoing police efforts to identify refugee
contacts among the local Korean population, few local Koreans or
American missionaries are willing to speak openly about what
they know. Still, some suggested that the network of local
missionary organizations coordinating with their counterparts
inside China has been in operation for years, even if the
numbers of refugees detained by local police has surged only
recently. Indeed, in a high-profile 2004 incident,
Korean-American missionary Jeffrey Bahk drowned while helping
refugees cross the Mekong from Burma. Those with connections to
the missionary community told PolOff they believe organizations
in Thailand are in constant contact with China-based
missionaries, who facilitate North Korean refugee movement
through southern China. Left unsaid are whether missionaries
make the trip from Yunnan to Thailand themselves and to what
extent Thailand-based organizations assist refugees here and
know of specific arrivals.

Policies Made in Bangkok Leave Locals Feeling Left Out of the
Loop~
——————————————— ————–
—————————-

10. (C) While local officials are aware of agreements among
the RTG, South Korean Embassy, and UNHCR to process cases in
Bangkok, many say they feel trapped between efforts to enforce
immigration laws and operate within the confines of these
discreet agreements on how to handle North Koreans. Chiang Rai
officials know little of how their counterparts in Bangkok
resolve these cases, while South Korean diplomats rarely visit
the area personally. In fact, officers from the Japanese
Consulate General in Chiang Mai have made more recent inquiries
on North Korean refugees to local authorities than the South
Korean embassy, according to one official. Because of this
disconnect between Bangkok and provincial officials, many fear
the status quo procedure used now to detain refugees may not
hold up to increased numbers coming across the river, especially

CHIANG MAI 00000079 003.2 OF 004

given a lack of funds at the provincial level to meet the costs
associated with detaining refugees.

11. (C) As with any attempted border crossing, police first
attempt to ensure that anyone trying to cross illegally does not
reach the shore, and suspicious looking boats are turned away.
But police realize this action is futile – if they force a boat
to return to Laos with North Koreans aboard, the refugees will
simply try again and again until they are successful, as Laotian
government officials have no interest in detaining refugees who
are trying to leave Laos anyway. Police fear that as word
spreads that arrests lead to processing in Bangkok and eventual
resettlement, ever more North Koreans will attempt to enter
Thailand in Chiang Rai.

12. (C) More refugees will further drain local resources and
capacity to manage the situation. Chiang Rai officials and
others who have interacted with these refugees say police and
immigration officials are straining to cover the food and
transportation costs associated with detaining and moving the
refugees. Moreover, police have no staff translators and are
largely reliant on local volunteer Koreans for help. UNHCR is
serving as an intermediary between the Thai government and the
ROK Embassy in an effort to assist local authorities in these
areas. The ROKG has told UNHCR it will provide funding and is
currently considering proposals provided by the RTG that would
include discreet funding for translators and facility upgrades.

~ While Refugees Face a Harder Time in Local Custody
——————————————— ————–
———-

13. (C) John Lee, a South Korean national who owns a guest
house in Chiang Rai and has helped local police with Korean
translations, said he has noticed that as the local legal system
is overrun with refugee cases, it is less able to adequately
care for those being detained. Lee said that on a recent visit,
refugees asked him for help acquiring food and said they were
not getting enough from immigration officials. Lee and others
believe that local police confiscate the refugees\’ money,
keeping it for themselves or using it to buy the refugees\’ food.
Lee and others said refugees were not getting proper medical
attention and suffered from fatigue and other ailments after
their long trek.

14. (C) Although Chiang Rai police insist nearly all North
Korean refugees crossing the Mekong seek to get caught soon
after reaching Thai soil rather than make their own way to
Bangkok, other observers believe more were crossing uncaught, as
word spread that conditions inside local detention centers were
harsh, with the goal of heading toward Korean churches in
Bangkok before formally requesting asylum. With little public
funds with which to move refugees through the legal system,
local police catch some North Koreans, liberate them of their
funds, and send them on their way unreported, Lee said.

COMMENT: More Refugees Could Seek Asylum Outside of RTG-ROKG
Process
——————————————— ————–
—————————————-

15. (C) If word continues to spread that Chiang Rai officials
are less able to securely and humanely detain refugees before
sending them to Bangkok, it is likely refugees may seek more
direct routes to Bangkok outside of any agreed-upon process
between the RTG and ROKG. Furthermore, if reports that the ROKG
is reducing incentives for refugees to move to South Korea are
true, it is possible more North Koreans may seek relocation to
third countries, a development that could increase walk-in
asylum requests at our embassies and consulates in Thailand and
elsewhere. Efforts by the RTG, ROKG, and UNHCR to better fund
Chiang Rai operations will improve the humanitarian conditions
of the refugees being detained, but it is unclear whether a
moderate boost in local capacities can keep an ever larger
number of refugees fully within the legal system as it is now
structured.

16. (C) Post has been extremely cautious in pursuing this
information, as we are acutely aware news of North Koreans
recently resettled in the U.S. combined with an increasing
inability of local RTG officials to handle the flow of refugees
across their northern border may draw more attention to USG
locations as targets for asylum requests. However, it is evident

CHIANG MAI 00000079 004.2 OF 004

that missionary organizations and refugee handlers are focused
on bringing more North Koreans through China and into Thailand
in the near future. The recent rise in the numbers crossing the
Mekong may yet be the tip of the iceberg.
MURPHY

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