YANJI, China—China may be far freer than North Korea, but it's a perilous way station for North Korean refugees who flee hunger and darkness in their homeland. Branded as illegal immigrants and subject to arrest and deportation, some dwell in hidden work camps or caves. Others scrounge for food in the hinterlands.
Most hope to hook into a fragile underground railroad that will take them to safety in Mongolia or Southeast Asia, further stops before eventual resettlement in South Korea or even America. Just last spring, the first trickle of North Korean refugees hit U.S. shores.
But as the refugees dream of leaving China, often with the help of good Samaritans from South Korea, the United States and Japan, they live in dread of capture.
Glancing nervously out a window in this border city, Kim Jong-chol said he'd commit suicide if the police threatened him with repatriation.
"I have no choice if I'm arrested. I can't go back to North Korea now," Kim said, explaining that he'd confront criminal charges, and probably execution, as someone who'd fled to China twice before, been caught both times and forcibly repatriated.
Asked to explain what life is like in his homeland, Kim said quietly: "You will never understand what I'm telling you. It's such a miserable situation."
Kim, a farmer, said his family's home had no indoor plumbing. In winter, there was never enough heat. For most people, food supplies are inadequate.
The children always ask for more food, Kim said, describing the daily diet as mostly boiled or mashed corn. Electricity was on for three hours a day at most, and the family had to fetch water from far away.
"Rice rations have stopped, and there's no guarantee you can get your wage," Kim said. Any criticism of the regime is kept to very intimate friends or family. "Many people disappear for making the wrong remarks," he said. "We talk about China: Look at how prosperous it is through reforms!"
The State Department estimates that 30,000 to 50,000 North Koreans live in northeastern China. Refugee-advocacy groups say the number could be closer to 300,000.
Despite evidence that politics drove some North Koreans from their country, China refuses to grant them refugee status. It declares that they're economic migrants and sends them home.
"They have no rights. They are living in daily fear. ... They have no protection under the laws of China," said Sam Kim, the general counsel of the Korean Church Coalition for North Korean Freedom, an advocacy group based in Southern California.
North Korean women and girls are particularly vulnerable. If Chinese farmers catch them, they're often forced into the sex trade or sold as rural brides.
"When the Chinese in the area find a North Korean woman who's living off the land in China, they are worth something. They're sold to anyone who wants a concubine," Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican and an advocate for the refugees, said in an interview last month in Washington.
Ruling with Stalinist rigor, North Korea's Kim Jong Il commands one of the world's largest standing armies and tolerates no opposition. Remote detention camps are estimated to house 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners. Even as the country's economy wheezes, Kim forges ahead in a drive to build nuclear weapons. Early in July he rattled East Asia by firing seven ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan.
The hidden exodus from North Korea has unfolded for more than a decade. Nearly 8,000 North Koreans have passed through China and reside in South Korea.
In past years, refugees coming across the border knew little of China. But since China has repatriated large numbers of North Koreans, probably in the tens of thousands, those who wish to escape now have information before they go.
"When they cross over the border now, they always have some knowledge: which route to go, daytime or nighttime, which villages to avoid, which churches to go to," said a South Korean activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because China could imprison him for his campaign to help refugees.
The activist said refugees now moved as far inland in China as possible, sometimes living for years with the help of ethnic Koreans in northeast China or South Korean businessmen in populous coastal Shandong province or around Shanghai.
Until this year, the United States accepted only high-level defectors from North Korea, not common refugees. But under the terms of the 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act, Washington opened the doors to refugees. Six entered the United States in May; three others arrived in late July.
Maybe half the North Koreans hiding in China want to remain there, said Tim A. Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea, a Seoul-based group that assists the refugees.
"The other half have set their sights on a distant horizon, either South Korea or the U.S. or elsewhere," Peters said.
Kim, the North Korean refugee in China, said he hoped to reach a safe area outside China, then "I will work like a slave to earn money to bring my wife and children out of North Korea."
On one of his previous flights from North Korea, Kim survived three years in China, ending up on the Shandong Peninsula jutting across the Yellow Sea toward Korea. After his repatriation, he said, he suffered "unspeakable hardship" during eight months of detention.
He told his captors he'd committed no political offense.
"I kept saying, `Hunger! Hunger was the reason.'"
He escaped to China again in early March.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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