At least five North Koreans have been smuggled through Cambodia and into Thailand in recent months along an arduous route to escape the hunger-starved country and find asylum in South Korea, according to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official.
The official, who asked not to be named, said the North Korean Embassy had complained to authorities here about the defectors and that the defectors had subsequently been sent to Bangkok about two months ago.
Hundreds of North Koreans head to the South each year seeking asylum from Kim Jong Il’s despotic regime, and recent reports indicate that networks of activists are increasingly smuggling the defectors along a route through China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. From Bangkok, the defectors are sometimes able to secure passage to Seoul.
A former North Korean army lieutenant who has smuggled almost 200 defectors cast light onto his network and its workings at a news conference in Seoul last week, The Associated Press reported.
Rim Young Son told reporters he had helped many defectors pass secretly through Southeast Asia as head of “Schindler’s Club,” a group of 50 activists named after a Nazi Germany factory owner who helped smuggle Jews out of concentration camps and into freedom during World War II.
More defectors are taking that circuitous route as Chinese authorities have clamped down on formerly used paths through Mongolia and across the sea from China into South Korea.
China is treaty-bound to return North Korean refugees, and publicized refugee accounts say it is the most perilous stage of their journey. Refugees have said in several media reports that many who fail in their defection attempts are summarily executed once they are returned to North Korean custody.
It is unclear how the five Pyongyang defectors recently arrived in Cambodia, the Foreign Ministry official said. Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, called the instance of North Korean defectors in the country “rare.”
“We don’t have any kind of this activity so far,” he said, adding that he did not know about reports that five North Koreans had recently traveled from here to Bangkok.
Networks to smuggle defectors are highly secretive and said to be aided by South Korean financiers, Christian organizations and others. The networks normally charge defectors for their services, and the South Korean government last week accused Rim Young Son of blackmailing and extorting money from North Koreans he had delivered to Seoul.
Officials at the South Korean Embassy referred comment to Ambassador Lee Han Gon, who could not be reached by telephone on Monday.
A North Korean Embassy official denied that any defectors had come through Cambodia and discredited Rim Young Son’s account of a regional smuggling network.
“This information should not be printed because it’s not true,” said Kim Kwang Guk, first secretary of the embassy.
“The people who say this are not good people. They do illegal business,” he said. Rim Young Son “maybe is not Korean. Maybe he is a cheater.”
Cambodia maintains tight relations with North Korea, where dire poverty and Kim Jong Il’s iron-fisted rule prompted one US diplomat to describe life there as “a hellish nightmare.”
King Norodom Sihanouk especially has close ties to the communist country, where he keeps a home and spent some of his time while in exile. He was close to Kim Jong Il’s late father, Kim Il Sung, who as the former leader of North Korea gave King Sihanouk a cadre of bodyguards that he continues to employ today.
In October, North Korean Ambassador Choe Han Chun said Kim Jong Il supported the continued rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.