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“”65369″,”5/25/2006 5:07″,”06CHIANGMAI79″,”Consulate Chiang Mai”,






DE RUEHCHI #0079/01 1450507




P 250507Z MAY 06




































E.O. 12958: DECL: 5/25/2016










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




——————————————— ————–






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




——————————————— ————–






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






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.






Written by thaicables

June 12, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] a 2006 cable from the US consulate in Chiang Mai (06CHIANGMAI79), one official predicted that the increase in North Korean refugee arrivals – then still […]

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