August, 2011 ▪ Interviewed by Viktor Kaspruk
Mr. Sebastian Strangio is the known Australian journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He writes on politics, human rights, business and environmental issues from across the Asia-Pacific in Asia Sentinel, Asia Times Online, Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, Global Post, Phnom Penh Post, South China Morning Post, The Age, The Caravan, The Diplomat, World Politics Review.
– Mr. Strangio, Cambodia was one of the destinations for North Korean refugees?
– Since the Chinese government considers North Korean defectors “illegal economic migrants”, the South Korean consular authorities are reluctant to aid refugees for fear of upsetting Beijing. As a result, the only remaining option for defectors is to head further afield. For a few years, Mongolia was a good option for defectors – and relatively close at hand – but passage across the desert frontier has become increasingly dangerous since the early 2000s due to crackdowns by Chinese border police. Cambodia, as one of only two countries in Southeast Asia to have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, is generally a friendly place for refugees. (One recent exception was the deportation in December 2009 of 20 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers following pressure from the Chinese government). It appears that Cambodia was one of the principal destinations for North Korean refugees for several years until the mid-2000s, but the flow has since dried up due to crackdowns by authorities in Vietnam.
– Pyongyang did not try to block this channel?
-The DPRK undoubtedly opposes the flow of North Korean refugees through Southeast Asia, but there’s not much they can do about it: the regime has little economic leverage with any of the countries in the region, who have much closer economic and political ties to Seoul. My guess is that North Korea adopts a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards refugee arrivals in Southeast Asia. The government instead concentrates its efforts on China, the first port of call for anyone seeking to flee their country. In recent years, Pyongyang has worked with Beijing to strengthen controls along the countries’ shared border and round up North Korean refugees living underground in China.
– Today, the so-called «underground railroad» travelled by North Korean defectors increasingly terminates in Thailand and Laos?
– Thailand – via Laos and Burma – is currently the main conduit for North Korean refugees, due to the increased difficulty of navigating the Vietnam-Cambodia route. The defectors are processed quietly according to an arrangement between the Thai and South Korean governments, but the increase in numbers – 2,482 arrived during 2010 alone – would likely have Thai officials worried. The new arrivals are taxing the capacity of local police and the Thai immigration authorities. According to recent reports, Bangkok has rejected a South Korean proposal to build a special processing center in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province, for fear it would increase the number of North Korean arrivals.
– Cambodia is the gateway to their dreams: resettlement in Seoul?
– Under the South Korean constitution, all North Koreans have an automatic right to South Korean citizenship, so most defectors end up starting new lives south of the 38th parallel. A few also opt for third countries, such as the United States. Upon arrival in Seoul, North Koreans are taken to a special training center where they spend several months learning to adapt to a modern capitalist economy (using ATM machines, ordering at restaurants, and the like). However, even with this schooling in modern life, North Koreans often find it hard to survive in the South. Each is given a $20,000 grant by the South Korean government to start a new life, but many are forced to pay a portion this to the people smugglers who brought them out of China; others struggle to adapt their North Korean skills and education to the demands of South Korean employers; and there is considerable informal discrimination against northerners. It can take many years for North Koreans to find their feet in the south, which poses a massive challenge to the smooth reunification of the Korean peninsula. Any reunification is likely to make Germany’s experience in 1989 look cheap and simple by comparison.
– The journey to Cambodia can take months and the path is lined with informants and extortionists. Capture in neighbouring China means certain deportation and quite possibly execution?
– As mentioned, the Chinese don’t recognize North Koreans as refugees, instead preferring to treat them as “illegal economic migrants”. If captured, China has a policy of deporting defectors back to the North. Given the nature of the North Korean regime, it can be hard to determine the fate of these people upon their return, but the indications are that they are treated terribly – sentenced to extended terms in prison camps or, in some cases, executed. Family members of defectors can also be arrested, as a way of discouraging people from leaving the country.
– Cambodia formed a significant terminus of a modern «underground railroad»?
– As mentioned above, Cambodia was at one point a significant destination for North Koreans. One North Korean defector in Seoul told me that when she arrived in Cambodia in the late 1990s, she spent time in a large safe house where the South Korean embassy held people while their papers were being processed. However, the flow has since dried up due to increased vigilance within Vietnam; today, Thailand is the ultimate destination for most North Koreans seeking asylum.
– Refugees from North Korea is a big problem for neighboring countries?
– The main fear for countries like Cambodia and Thailand is that the flow of refugees becomes so large that it overwhelms local capacity. At this point, if the flow of refugees becomes too public, the North Korean government might also feel obliged to lodge formal complaints about the governments’ roles in aiding them. The main loser in this case, however, would likely be the refugees themselves, who might thenceforth find it more difficult to gain asylum and resettlement in third countries. For Beijing, the fear is greater still. In the event of a collapse of Kim Jong-Il’s regime, China would likely be flooded by thousands of North Korean refugees, posing a large-scale humanitarian crisis and potentially destabilising regions of northeast China. For now, China has shown it is willing to work with North Korea to increase vigilance on its border – especially along the shallow Tumen River, which is a relatively easy crossing point for North Koreans seeking to defect. It also makes efforts to round up North Koreans living illegally in Korean-speaking border areas.