North Korean refugees are showing up in northern Thailand despite closed borders in the Covid-19 era. Representational image: Facebook

CHIANG MAI – If anyone thought that Covid-19 had shut down the “underground railroad” that for years has provided thousands of North Koreans with an escape route through China down to Southeast Asia and into South Korea’s regional embassies, then think again.

On November 20, six North Korean women crossed the Mekong river from Laos into Chiang Saen in northern Thailand. Local press reports suggest that another 200 are currently hiding in Laos waiting for the right moment to do the same.

As North Korea faces an economic crisis caused by international sanctions as well as the negative economic trends caused by the pandemic, the number of refugees trying to cross Thailand’s now tightly-closed land and river borders is expected by certain observers to rise.

Pyongyang has not confirmed a single case of Covid-19, which has swept the rest of the world since it first emerged in China almost a year ago. Starting last month, state media has published articles saying that the world is looking at North Korea with “envy and shock” at the country’s handling of the virus crisis.

In early October, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared before a huge crowd thanking them for being “in good health” and without anyone “having fallen victim to the malignant virus.”

But after that speech, state media sent mixed messages over a seemingly new mask-wearing policy and warnings that “yellow clouds” which blow in from China may carry the virus. Moreover, thousands were tested after an October 10 military parade in Pyongyang to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (2nd R) without a mask attending a military parade during a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea at Kim Il-sung Square of Pyongyang. Photo: KCNA VIA KNS /AFP Forum

The results of those tests are not known, but the same state media began to promote slogans claiming that North Korea is “a uniquely clean land on the planet” and “a place free of infection from the virus.” North Korean media have also shown pictures of a new, general hospital in Pyongyang which was opened to coincide with the October 10 celebrations.

But as Soo Kim of the Rand Corporation told the Agence France-Presse just before the parade: “North Korea lacks the medical technology, skills, infrastructure and manpower to adequately provide legitimate medical care to the population. So the hospital will become another fixture of North Korea’s ‘Potemkin village’,” — or a shiny façade with little of any substance behind it.

North Korea’s claims of being Covid-19-free are also not being taken seriously by international health officials. They are acutely aware of the poor standards of North Korea’s public health system, which despite the new hospital remains incapable of coping with any major virus outbreak.

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises travel to North Korea “may increase your chance of getting and spreading Covid-19” and that travelers thus “should avoid all travel to North Korea.”

It’s not yet clear why the recent batch of North Korean refugees in Thailand and apparently waiting to cross the border from Laos fled their home country, though its possible twin health and economic crises are driving a new wave of refugees.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based rights lobby, notes that North Korea has locked down and created buffer zones on its borders, preventing citizens from transiting without tightly regulated permission from the government since the pandemic hit.

In an October 25 report, HRW noted that North Korea-focused media outlets had obtained and translated a police order stating that those entering buffer zones without permission “will be unconditionally shot,” or if seen on the North Korean side of border rivers, “shot without prior notice.”

A North Korean public security officer uses a red flag to stop a taxi for disinfection as part of preventative measures against the COVID-19 coronavirus, on a road at the entrance to Wonsan, Kangwon Province. Photo: Kim Won Jin/AFP

Since January, North Korea’s 1,352-kilometer border with China, formed almost entirely by the Yalu and Tumen rivers, as well as its only 18-kilometer border with Russia, have been open only to limited trade in essential goods.

But the border with China is famously porous and with winter approaching the Yalu and Tumen rivers will be frozen, making it easier for North Koreans willing to brave the harsh weather to escape undetected.

Once on the other side, there is a sizable ethnic Korean community living mainly in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Although helping refugees is deemed a criminal offense in China, many Chinese-Koreans are willing to take the risk to help their kinsmen from across the border.

In the past, North Korean refugees have carried on from China to Mongolia, where they approached the South Korean embassy for refuge. According to the South Korean constitution, North Koreans are regarded as citizens of the Republic of Korea and therefore have the right to be resettled there.

Since Mongolian authorities made it more difficult for North Koreans to cross the Gobi Desert and enter their territory, the main escape route for refugees now is a southerly direction through China to Laos and then across the Mekong River into Thailand.

Although Thailand regards the North Koreans as illegal migrants, Bangkok’s excellent relations and important trade ties with South Korea mean that the refugees are not deported but rather picked up in the north and then held in detention centers near Bangkok.

There, South Korean officials interview them to determine if they are genuine escapees of economic and political plights and not agents sent to infiltrate the south. It’s not clear if the current batch of refugees may be considered as what some have termed “health refugees” from the pandemic.  

The pandemic means that there are currently few flights between Thailand and South Korea, and it is therefore uncertain what will happen to the newly arrived refugees. But the fact that they are trying to escape shows that they are desperate.

Map: Twitter

Traditionally, those who flee are not starving peasants but come mainly from urban middle-class backgrounds and usually have relatives who have already made it to South Korea. That may be necessary because to reach Thailand safely the refugees have to pay steep fees to Chinese gangs for safe passage.

Sources close to the networks in northern Thailand that support the North Korean refugees say the smuggling fee is at least US$5,000 per person and could be as high as $15,000 if the escapee is a government official or otherwise deemed to be an important person who needs special protection.

Relatives in South Korea usually pay the Chinese traffickers in advance, and smuggling fees include transportation, food and accommodation in safe houses along the way, not to mention alleged bribes for Chinese officials to look the other way.

The journey is riskier than ever as the pandemic has led to tighter border controls in Thailand and elsewhere. Lao authorities used to allow the refugees to continue their journey to Thailand, but that changed back in 2013 when the first batch of North Korean refugees was sent back to North Korea via China.

The reason for that policy change is still not clear, but Jane Lee at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests in a paper published in February this year that officials from the two countries met — possibly in 2013 — to discuss how to block the escape route by strengthening Lao border controls.

Lee also wrote that “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.”

That means even officials in Laos now have to be paid, which, if true, could have increased smuggling fees charged by the Chinese gangs.

North Korean refugees who entered the country illegally are escorted by a Thai policeman to an immigration office in Bangkok in a pre-Covid file photo. Image: AFP

Once in South Korea, refugees receive generous allowances from the government to enable them to start new lives in freedom.

But how many will be able to make the journey in today’s Covid-19-heightened security environment is uncertain. Thailand has tightly closed its border with Myanmar and rounded up all kinds of illegals for fear of importing more Covid-19 cases. And it remains to be seen how Bangkok will react to a possible new influx of fleeing North Koreans.

But the recent North Korean arrivals in northern Thailand show that at least some believe that the risks involved in escaping from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s hermetically sealed nation are still worth taking even in a time of global plague.