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North Korea defectors take to the "Underground Railroad"

The 3,000-mile journey can take months and the path is lined with informants.

The final destination

According to figures obtained by the Bangkok Post newspaper, Thailand’s immigration police detained only 46 North Korean illegal migrants in 2004. But last year, according to their figures, police processed nearly 2,500.

“I know it’s a human rights issue and, in my heart, I like to see them get help,” said Gen. Pansak Khasemasanda, a senior-ranking member of Thailand’s immigration police. “But whoever comes illegally, even if they’re North Korean, has to follow the law.”

“The burden lands on us,” he said, “because they sleep right in this cell over here.”

North Koreans who reach Thailand, however, are almost guaranteed support from South Korea. Once vetted, they’re released at a less intimidating Thai border — Bangkok’s chief international airport — with a light fine and a plane ticket to Seoul purchased by the South Korean government.

What follows is interrogation by South Korea’s CIA equivalent, months of rehabilitation and release into society with an initial payment of roughly $3,000, according to sources in the defectors’ network. About half of that payment is often owed to the network that funded their months-long escape.

Despite repeated enquiries, South Korea’s Bangkok embassy would not discuss their system of aiding North Koreans caught in Thailand. At Bangkok’s North Korean embassy, a man who answered the main line became irate when the subject was raised.

“Maybe you should just talk to these brokers because they’re the ones who allow these actions,” he said before hanging up.

These days, many escapees reach Thailand’s far north by hitching a ride on Chinese cargo ships that travel several hundred miles down the Mekong River, said Sugint, the lawyer in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province.

“For a little money, I think, a Chinese border guard might close one eye,” he said. The less fortunate have to take the old-school route: plodding the jungles of Laos undetected.

As they did nearly one decade ago, refugees continue to drift across the Mekong River at a port near Sugint’s home office, he said. But they are seldom as panicked and ragged as they once were.

He recalled a refugee years ago who was held at a police station for several hours until a bewildered cop, unable to communicate with the detainee, rolled back the cell doors and signaled for him to walk out. The frightened man gripped his seat and refused to budge.

“Now, they seem more relaxed, look clean and can even speak a little Chinese,” said Sugint, who has made a hobby of helping them fall into police custody safely. He’s even prodded his son to learn Korean and serve as the family’s pro bono translator.

“They’ve actually have money on them now,” Sugint said. “The first thing they want are cigarettes and a phone card to start making calls.”