Soldiers and police cordoned off a bridge near northeastern China’s Dandong city last month as a special train rolled across the Yalu river carrying North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.
The high security surrounding Kim’s secret crossing from North Korea into China might have given the impression this stretch of water dividing the two Communist-ruled police states marked one of the world’s most secure borders.
Most make the risky crossing from the North Korean side, with no plans to return.
“I defected to China in March 2007 for a new opportunity outside North Korea but I was victimised by human traffickers and sold to an entertainment club and restaurant where I worked as a virtual slave for two years,” said Pang Yon-ju, a 26-year-old woman now living in Seoul. “I was terrified by the possibility of arrest at any time by the Chinese police.”
Pang joined a group of nine North Koreans who took refuge in the Danish embassy in Hanoi in September after they were helped along the ‘underground railway’ through China to Vietnam by the Seoul-based Helping Hands Korea.
Another woman in Pang’s group, Kim Sun-hi, escaped after traffickers sold her to a Chinese farmer. Kim said she could not remember a “single day of peace” during five years as an illegal migrant in China. She told Helping Hands she first entered China in March 2004 “for food”.
“But I was victimised by human traffickers in China at this point and became the wife of a poor Chinese farmer,” Kim said. “Luckily, I did not have any children with the Chinese farmer and managed to break away from him to work at a restaurant.”
Thousands of other North Korean women are not so lucky. Between
30,000 and 300,000 North Korean migrants remain in limbo in China, according to different estimates, most of them women.
“Some remain in hiding for a lifetime while others seek brokers or activists who will guide them along their journey out,” said LiNK Global, a US-based group helping the refugees inside China.
“From China, refugees must traverse the underground railroad to find one of the many routes to freedom, either through Mongolia or south through south-east Asia,” LiNK said.
As the United Nations High Commission for Refugees marks World Refugee Day today, it lists no North Korean refugees in China, though it designates them as ‘persons of concern’.
The UNHCR has requested access to the North Koreans many times since they began flooding across the border nearly 20 years ago during a famine that was estimated to have killed more than one million people in their homeland. North Korea now has a population of about 23 million.
China continues to label the North Koreans ‘economic migrants’, refusing to grant them refugee status and repatriating those caught by the police.
Kitty McKinsey, an East Asian regional spokesperson for UNHCR, said her organisation was “quite disturbed” by reports of trafficking, sexual exploitation and other abuses of North Koreans in China. It also believes China should not send back North Korean migrants, she said.
As with other human rights issues, China and North Korea say very little. Both nations would prefer to see the problem of North Korean migrants swept under the carpet.
The Chinese government “absolutely bottles up” the UNHCR, said Tim Peters, the American missionary who founded Helping Hands 13 years ago.
Peters sees no significant easing of China’s stance in recent years, saying the government continues “very adamantly” with the policy of sending migrants back to North Korea, including some women who have lived in China for more than 10 years.
“Even if they have children, that does not deter the decision to send these women back,” Peters said, adding many children of repatriated North Korean women remain in China as orphans or face an uncertain future with their Chinese families.
Chinese authorities sometimes allow the Chinese fathers to register the children but first demand proof that the mothers have returned to North Korea. “This is a particularly egregious violation of every kind of human right,” Peters said.
North Korean women are reportedly sold into forced marriages in China for anywhere between £400 and £1300. Unmarried Chinese men and their families buy the women as surrogate wives who are expected to produce children.
“North Korean women are highly vulnerable to sexual slavery and other exploitation in China, but many prefer selling their body to repatriation to their famine-stricken country,” said Chun Ki Won, the head of the Seoul-based Durihana Mission.
A report in March by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in North Korea gave an indication of why some North Korean women accept forced marriage and other forms of exploitation and abuse in China.
Vitit Muntarbhorn said he believed “harrowing and horrific human rights violations” were continuing in the nation, which he has never been allowed to visit. The “non-democratic nature of the power base” in North Korea had created a “State of Fear” in which the army took priority over the people, Muntarbhorn told the UN Human Rights Council.
The New York-based International Rescue Committee, which lobbies for “refugees fleeing repressive regimes”, says China’s forcible repatriation of North Koreans is “in violation of its international obligations”.
Women and men who are sent back to North Korea face torture, stretches in labour camps and execution.
Lee Tae-gon, 23, also reached Seoul via Vietnam in September. Lee first defected as an orphaned teenager in 1999 but was sent back to North Korea four times over the next six years, before working as a waiter in China from 2006 to 2009.
“After each return, I was beaten and kicked severely during the interrogations by the State Security agents of North Korea,” Lee told Helping Hands.
In February 2008, North Korea publicly executed 15 people who were accused of entering China or attempting to cross the border illegally, according to an unconfirmed report by Good Friends, another South Korean aid group.
“What we’re experiencing is that the North Korean government is making the consequences of border-crossing more serious as a deterrence,” Peters said.
Many refugees wade across the Tumen river, which marks the eastern end of the land border between China and North Korea, or walk over the frozen river in winter. Smaller numbers cross the Yalu river along the western side of the border.
Bribing North Korean border guards to allow crossings has become “increasingly common”, LiNK Global said.
“However, attempting to defect still holds a great amount of risk and danger for North Koreans,” said the group, which provides a network of safe houses for North Korean or stateless Chinese-North Korean children in China.
LiNK Global, Helping Hands and Good Friends are part of a network of international groups based in South Korea, Japan, the United States and other countries that help the North Koreans to survive in China and move on to other countries.
The aid groups face their own difficulties with Chinese authorities. The fallout from the arrest of two US journalists by North Korean border guards in March 2009 was also “disruptive” to the groups’ work in China, Peters said.
If those helping North Koreans are caught, “the retribution is swift and severe”, he said. Despite the risks of capture, the network helps hundreds of North Koreans make it to South Korea each year. The journey usually follows an ‘underground railway’ of back routes by train, bus, boat or foot though China into Laos, Burma, Vietnam or Thailand.
“Once refugees make it out of China, they seek asylum at a foreign embassy or consulate,” LiNK Global said.
Some 18,000 North Koreans have settled in South Korea over the past 20 years, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry. A few hundred North Koreans have also gone to the United States, Canada and other Western nations.
The proportion of women among North Koreans reaching South Korea rose rapidly to about 78% in 2007, the ministry said.
China has responded with greater efforts to stop the North Koreans entering the country illegally. It sent troops to replace armed police along the border in 2003 in an apparent response to growing cross-border migration and crime.
Recent reports suggest that China and North Korea both intensified security near the Chinese border before Pyongyang’s apparently disastrous attempt to revalue its currency in December, Peters said.
Some Western analysts argue that it would be relatively simple for China’s Communist Party to accept North Koreans as refugees and to use economic, political and even military pressure to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear weapons programme.
But the allies in the 1950-53 Korean War have a complicated relationship.
China is forced to forge an “awkward cooperation” with North Korea over the migrants, said Shi Yinhong, an international relations specialist at People’s University in Beijing.
“If China sends them back to North Korea then South Korea and Western nations would criticise China,” Shi said.
“I think China has made great efforts to maintain its security and uphold humanitarianism as well,” Shi said. “It’s difficult to deal with but China has made efforts, otherwise the situation would be even worse.”
China has criticised North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and hosted the stalled six-nation negotiations aimed at persuading Pyongyang to end the programme. But it gave a cool response to calls for the UN Security Council to impose new sanctions over North Korea’s apparent torpedoing of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March.
Beijing has plenty of reasons for wanting Kim Jong Il’s regime to remain in power. It is concerned about a potential flood of refugees if North Korea suffers more famine or instability. An even greater concern for China’s Communist Party could be the effect of the fall of the Korean Workers’ Party on its own future.
A report in November by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group concluded that China “continues to act in ways that shield” North Korea from “more punitive measures, including stronger economic sanctions”.
It's sad that they go from one nightmare to another