Last Monday, seven North Korean refugee women in their 20s and 30s turned themselves in to Thai police in the northeastern province of Nong Khai on the border of Laos.
Fleeing from hunger and repression, North Koreans started coming to Chiang Saen in Thailand's northernmost region three years ago, via China and Laos. The influx of North Koreans in the town, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of Bangkok, shows that Thailand has become a popular transit country for defectors.
"North Koreans defect to China first. But if they are caught, the risk of being deported back to North Korea is 100 percent," says Lee Yong-Hwa, who heads an NGO for North Korean defectors in Japan.
After deportation from China --- North Korea's closest ally --- those who tried to flee face imprisonment, forced labor and even execution, Lee says. "Even if they are caught in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, these governments will also send them back to China," from where they will eventually be shipped back to North Korea, he says.
"But Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that does not do so," he adds.