A U.S. citizen is facing prosecution in Thailand on charges of human smuggling after reportedly helping seven North Koreans enter the kingdom from Laos.
Isaac Byungdo Lee, 41, was arrested Monday in the northern province of Chiang Mai under an arrest warrant issued in late July “for a crime he committed in June,” Police Lt. Col. Patipat Suban Na Ayudhya told BenarNews.
He was taken to Nong Khai province on the Laos border “where he committed crime” and will be brought to court there for indictment “as soon as possible,” Patipat added.
“He was charged with co-smuggling in illegal migrants into the kingdom.”
Lee could face up to five years in jail on the smuggling charge, according to the Chiangrai Times, a local news outlet in northern Thailand.
The arrest came a week after the U.S. State Department gave Thailand a failing grade for a second year running in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, in which it ranks countries according to their efforts to combat such crimes.
“The Government of Thailand does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, and is not making significant efforts to do so,” the report said.
Lee is a Christian missionary who has lived in Chiang Mai for 19 years, according to reports.
He was arrested after being linked to a car used to pick up North Koreans from the Lao border in mid-June.
"CCTV footage showed seven North Koreans entering Thailand along the Laos border on June 17. They were picked up by a car on the Thai side," Pol. Col. Pallop Suriyakul na Ayutthaya, chief of the Nong Khai Immigration Bureau, told Agence France-Presse.
The license plate was traced to a rental company, and then to Lee, it said.
Five were dropped off near a police station and two were taken to Chiang Mai with the goal of boarding a plane to the United States, according to The Bangkok Post.
All seven are now being detained in Nong Khai, AFP said.
Lee confessed to helping the North Koreans cross the border after receiving a call to assist them from a Korean man in Laos, Pallop told AFP.
“We are aware of reports that a U.S. citizen was arrested on human smuggling charges in Thailand. Due to privacy considerations we are unable to comment further,” Melissa Sweeny, an information officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, told BenarNews.
Thailand and several other Southeast Asian countries are a common transit country for North Korean defectors who escape their homeland via China with the aim of eventually resettling in South Korea.
“I was surprised why North Koreans came this way. Perhaps the officials in one neighboring countries became strict so that they came through another country,” Patipat told BenarNews.