CHIANG SAEN, 9 August 2011 (IRIN) - Thailand is fast becoming a transit country for North Koreans fleeing severe food shortages and poverty, authorities say.
Thousands now make their way along the more than 5,000km, often-dangerous route, through China and Laos to the kingdom en route to South Korea.
Since 2004, when just 46 North Korean asylum seekers were reported by Thailand's Immigration Bureau, the numbers have jumped to nearly 2,500 in 2010.
Thailand is the easiest route to access and the most accommodating, compared with Mongolia or Vietnam, where border security is tighter and in some cases, those fleeing have been sent back to face harsh punishment.
The trend is likely to continue, judging by a recent report by the World Food Programme (WFP), citing a bitter winter, crop loss, and lack of resources to secure cereal supplies from outside the country.
"We are at a crossroads right now: if we manage to get food into the country we can reach thousands of hungry children and their mothers on time," Claudia von Roehl, WFP country director, told IRIN from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. "Our primary concern is for those who are most vulnerable to food shortages - children, mothers and the elderly."
Government rations - mainly cereals, maize and rice - provide only about a third of people's daily food needs; some families are already resorting to negative survival strategies, including cutting down on the size and number of meals, the UN food agency reports.
In recent months, the government has distributed between 150-200 grams per person per day, while the full ration is close to 600g.
One young women just arriving in Thailand said her family in North Korea had cut down to one meal a day.
"We never had any days that we felt full in our stomach. Many times we cut the grass in the forest to eat."
The soft-spoken 26-year-old former teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, began her exodus six years ago, by crossing the 526km Tumen River into China and then spending five years working to pay off the smuggler fees that made her escape possible.
Local Chiang Rai Police Chief Potsawee Chotienchaikun has talked to many of the asylum-seekers who regularly surrender themselves to authorities after reaching the Mekong River.
Thailand's reputation as a safe port of entry for North Koreans has spread by word of mouth, he believes.
"I think the people who have escaped in the past have made contact with their friends in North Korea and told them where it is safe to go. The South Koreans welcome the people because they are the same nationality, they speak the same language and the South Koreans have enough resources to take care of them."
Those resources reportedly include an initial re-settlement subsidy of six million won (US$5,330) per person and housing assistance.
But despite the fact that part of the subsidy goes straight into the hands of the traffickers who orchestrated the escape, the overall benefits seem to outweigh the losses.
"Here in Thailand it's quite clear that every North Korean who has arrived is being considered by the South Korean embassy and is being sent to South Korea," says the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, Phil Robertson.
"There's a system here that works in terms of North Koreans who can reach their destination."
But the root of the problem remains the scarce food resources in North Korea, an isolated nation of more than 24 million; Robertson hopes the country will continue to allow in teams to assess the situation.
"We would continue to press for the advancement and openness that we've seen to be made permanent because people should not be allowed to starve."
Meanwhile, for the lucky few, the sight of the smiling Buddha on the Thai side of the Mekong River is a sign of hope.
"When I crossed into Thailand, I was very happy. My life is safe now and I realize that I have survived," said the former teacher.
According to media reports cited by North Korean Economy Watch, a weblog on North Korean economic issues, more than 20,000 North Korean defectors have arrived in South Korea since the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in a truce. The number does not account for the estimated tens of thousands hiding in China.