On The *Trip Of Death* From North To South Korea

North Korean guard looking south
North Korean guard looking south
Reymer Kluver

SEOUL - The distance between the North Korean border town of Hyesan and South Korea’s capital Seoul is 440 kilometers (273 mi) as the crow flies. It took Park Kun-ha five years to complete the journey.

His way turned out not only to be a lot longer but tortuous, taking him through the jungle of large Chinese cities, Southeast Asian rain forests, labor camps, and even prison. It was a modern odyssey during which he became the victim of crime and a thief himself, as well as rag collector, beggar, harvest hand and tile carrier. He made it to his destination in the end – only to discover that he wasn’t really welcome.

Park, a native of North Korea now living in Seoul, is one of 25,000 refugees who have managed the perilous escape from the Communist country isolated from the rest of the world to seek a new life in the south.

"The trip of death" is what refugees like Park call the risky North-South trek. Nobody knows how many give up along the way, are arrested by North Korean officials, or are arrested in China and kicked out. Only the ones who actually make it know how dangerous the journey is. Park left in June 2000 and got to Seoul in June 2005.

The easiest part was fleeing across the border to China on foot, the 50-year-old man says. He was a customs inspector at the border, so it was relatively easy to find a moment when he could wade across the Amrok River unobserved. But he had to make sure not to be discovered by Chinese officials because they send North Koreans right back where they came from where, if they’re lucky, they end up in a labor camp and if they’re not they are executed as traitors.

Park made it through China. In the border region he was helped by members of the Korean-Chinese ethnic group known as Joseonjok. During the day, he slept in hideouts, and at night he walked as far away from the border as he could get. In the fall he got work as a harvest hand. In the southern part of China, he worked for several years on University of Yunnan construction sites before continuing further south.

In Laos, all his savings were stolen off him – which meant he had to beg to survive, sleep rough. Desperate, he stole a fishing boat one night and rowed across the Mekong River to Thailand. He begged his way to Bangkok where the South Korean embassy organized accommodation for him, and after nearly another year of waiting he was finally flown to Seoul.

Park’s “trip of death” lasted a little bit longer than usual: most last between ten months to a year, following the same route via China and Southeast Asian countries although some opt to go via Russia or the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. But whichever way they travel, the long flight is full of risk, all the way.

There is the constant fear of being denounced to authorities. Women particularly all too often become victims of sexual abuse. Yet from 2006 to 2012, between 2,000 and 3,000 North Koreans made it to South Korea every year. Last year, however, the North Koreans tightened controls along the border with China, thus reducing the flow of refugees seeking a new home in South Korea to 1,500.

Disinterest and prejudice

Although the refugees seek a new home, that’s not necessarily what they find. What Park found when he finally reached the land of his dreams – disinterest and prejudice – shocked him deeply. He doesn’t know which was worse. "They are completely indifferent," he says about South Koreans. "They live their own lives, they couldn’t care less about the North." He wasn’t expecting that. He thought people would be interested in him, as someone who put his life on the line to come South.

The first job Park found in South Korea was as an assistant janitor. After a few days, his boss expressed relief that his new helper turned out not to be as “aggressive” as he’d feared. Many South Koreans take their lead from the behavior of North Korean leaders and assume that all North Koreans are bellicose – a prejudice that is only encouraged by the fact that, when speaking, North Koreans have accents they perceive as hard.

In general, North Korean refugees don’t enjoy much of a good reputation in the South. Most of them find menial jobs – they can forget whatever it was they learned in the North (Park had studied biology). Twelve percent are unemployed (in 2012, the unemployment rate in South Korea was an estimated 3.8%). According to a study, one in ten of the North Korean refugees has had trouble with the law in South Korea. One in nine female refugees in South Korea has been sexually harassed or raped, and a third are said to have prostituted themselves at least once. Sixty percent of all new arrivals prefer not to reveal their origins.

A scale model of the border between South and North Korea - Photo: Kate Nevens

There is a very popular dating reality show on Korean TV called SBS Jjak. One episode that aired about a year and half ago threw a revealing light on the way North Korean refugees are perceived by South Koreans. A pretty young woman had become the absolute favorite of the men on the show. In tears, she confided that she’d left something important out of her biography: her North Korean past. All the men then lost interest in her, except for a poor farmer’s son.

Park – despite money he received when he arrived, and a generous state subsidy to help him integrate into South Korean society that works out to the equivalent of nearly 30,000 euros – says he still doesn’t feel completely accepted in his new homeland. Yes, he acknowledges, "I can say what I want and make my own decisions." But he hasn’t yet been able to forge deeper links within South Korean society.

Five years ago, together with some other North Korean refugees, he formed NK Intellectual Solidarity (NKIS), which helps North Koreans integrate. The NKIS also puts relevant information about living in the South together for North Koreans who are thinking of making the “trip of death” and smuggles the USB sticks into North Korea.

Park Kun-ha has also found great personal happiness in South Korea – he’s remarried. Like him, his new wife is a refugee from the North.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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