Jeong Yu-miwas 11 years-old when she left her homeland, stepping across the frozen Tumen River and into north-eastern China. It was December 1998, at the height of the famine that ravaged large swathes of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. ‘I came out of North Korea on foot, in winter,’ she recalls of the journey. ‘The snow was piled up to about knee height.’
Yu-mi (a pseudonym) was born in Musan, a mining city on the Chinese border. Initially, her father’s position as a timber worker protected the family from the effects of the famine, but following his death in a freak work accident in 1997, Yu-mi’s mother went to China to earn money for the family. Yu-mi followed some months later, accompanied by her elder sister and three other adults.
In 2007, after nine years living underground in China, Yu-mi and her mother finally secured secret passage to South Korea; her sister came a year later. Missionary groups escorted the pair from Beijing to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh—some 3,340 kilometres distant—where they were granted passports by South Korean officials. The perilous journey from Yanji to Phnom Penh, undertaken without legal documents of any kind, took about 10 days.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Describing her own first impressions after she touched down at Seoul’s Incheon airport in February 2008, nearly 10 years after leaving her homeland, Yu-mi says she was ‘happy beyond words.’
‘Now I could be treated as a human being, not as a ghost,’ she adds.
Now studying at the Hangkuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, Yu-mi is just one of tens of thousands of North Koreans who have fled the country since the famine of the mid-1990s, swelling the south’s émigré community to more than 21,000. A greater number—activists estimate somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000—continue to live as refugees in China, procuring food for their relatives or awaiting their chance to escape to the south.
Rights groups say, however, that increased border controls have made unauthorised crossings harder than ever. Tim Peters, founder of refugee aid group Helping Hands Korea, says the Chinese government cracked down on illegal crossings around the 2008 Beijing Olympics, fearful of any sort of ‘instability’ in the area.
‘The Beijing government in general has a very deep-seated fear of any sort of instability,’ says Peters, a Michigan native who first moved to Korea as a young missionary in the mid-1970s. ‘The potential for hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of North Korean refugees to come across the border into China constitutes a threat to the stability of Northeast China.’ He adds that the situation has only worsened following the recent series of uprisings in the Middle East, which both Chinese and North Korean leaders feel could have a ‘viral’ effect on their own societies.