JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, as famine grips their country, some North Koreans are choosing to make a difficult journey to Thailand through a modern-day underground railroad.
John Sparks Independent Television News has the story.
JOHN SPARKS: The river is wide and treacherous, but, for an increasing number of North Koreans, it must be crossed. Freedom and food await.
The Mekong River, it's the final obstacle at the end of an extraordinary 3,000-mile trek. Once these waters are negotiated, their lives will change dramatically.
Sixty-seven North Koreans are led in groups to a rusty old bus. They hide their faces, but it's a happy occasion. In a few hours, they will be locked up in a cell in central Bangkok. And it's a privilege many are risking their lives for. This a different sort of photo-op, Kim Jong Il, North Korea's elusive dictator, in China a few weeks ago for hugs and handshakes.
At home, however, his people are starving to death. The U.N. says six million need urgent assistance. While the Dear Leader enjoyed the sights, a U.S. diplomatic team landed in North Korea, there to consider pleas for emergency food aid. The E.U. has a team in the country this week.
Many North Koreans can't wait. They know that South Korea will accept them and support them with a settlement grant, but they have to get there first. People-traffickers move them across the border into China, then down towards Laos. They risk their lives. They will be sent back if they're caught.
The final challenge: crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. One thing they don't have worry about is how to pay for the trip. A trafficker told us why.
MAN (through translator): The traffickers charge about $5,000 each, but the refugees don't have the cash, so they hand over their settlement money when they get to South Korea.
JOHN SPARKS: This South Korean money now financing a modern-day underground railroad. Seven years ago, 46 North Koreans crossed the Mekong into Thailand, but, last year, 2,500 did. We asked the Thai police whether they had tried to stop them.
LT. COL. PONGNAKORN NAKORNSANTIPAP, Immigration Police: Impossible.
(through translator): No country stop this. We don't have the budget.
JOHN SPARKS: This is what freedom looks like for many North Korean escapees. It's the Chiang Saen police station. And more than 600 turned up here last year. Upon arrival, they're given a room around the back. And then they wait patiently to be arrested.
When we visited, five North Koreans had taken up residence in the old police station. They were free to walk around. We tried to speak to them, but they were too frightened. A church volunteer told us how they had survived in their homeland.
INGYU KIM, Christian volunteer (through translator): The food shortage is so bad, they couldn't stand it anymore. In winter, they ate straw and roots. They had to wash out the dirt and eat them.
JOHN SPARKS: They will stay in this scruffy, yet well-stocked border town for a few days before being moved to a detention center. But it's all done quietly. Few wish to acknowledge this secretive migration.
LT. COL. PONGNAKORN NAKORNSANTIPAP (through translator): It is a very sensitive issue. The Thai government wants to be friends with all nations. We don't want to get involved in other countries' problems.
JOHN SPARKS: It is an unlikely coalition of people-traffickers, church groups and governments who have given these people something they never had at home: hope.