Features | Society | East Asia

Escaping North Korea

The hundreds of North Koreans escaping into China each year are facing ever tougher border controls. Those caught face imprisonment and torture.

By Sebastian Strangio for

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.

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.

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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.

The shallow Tumen River, which forms the porous northern section of the border with China, was once an easy crossing point for defectors and traders; today, Peters says, it has been rigged with cameras and heat and motion sensors in a bid to detect and interdict any large movement of people. At the same time, continuing food shortages and economic mismanagement are pushing increasing numbers to flee to China. ‘The so-called “push factors” for them to risk everything and leave North Korea are growing, just as the barriers to their exit are being strengthened. This causes enormous tension,’ he says.

For the tens of thousands of refugees in Northeast China—seen by Chinese authorities as ‘illegal economic migrants’—life also remains in a permanent state of limbo. Many live underground in Yanji, the bustling capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, home to a flourishing ethnic Korean population that provides the ideal cover for refugees.

Still, defectors say living underground in Yanji is a daily struggle. Refugees caught by the Chinese authorities are routinely arrested and sent back to North Korea, where they face imprisonment and torture. ‘The authorities were hunting us,’ says Hyeon Bu-heong, a 26-year-old defector who lived for five years in Yanji and Shenyang before arriving in South Korea. He says he was unable to take a job or attend church, fearful he would be identified. ‘I couldn’t go to church, because in Chinese churches there were North Korean spies,’ he says.

Jeong Yu-mi says her own aunt was caught four times by the Chinese authorities, and is now, presumably, incarcerated in the North.‘She had been in China and we were able to contact her,’ she says. ‘Now she’s been repatriated back.’

Pastor Chun Ki-won, the head of Durihana, a Seoul-based missionary organisation that aids refugees, says women were also vulnerable to sex trafficking. ‘Chinese people are able to give money to North Korean soldiers to get women out (of the North),’ he says. Many are then locked in rooms and forced to do ‘webcam chatting’ until they pay off their debts. ‘Whatever happens to them in China…they can’t complain or resist,’ Chun says. ‘Basically, they live like beasts.’

The road from Hunchun to Yanji skirts the northern tip of North Korea, running for several kilometres alongside the Tumen River, swollen to a glittering stream by the spring snowmelt. The khaki-coloured hills across the river are sparsely populated, save for an occasional farmhouse or shed nestled among the naked branches. As the road passes through Tumen, a small Chinese border city, a line of grey apartment blocks rises up on the North Korean side like a set of unsightly teeth.

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It was here that Chun Ki-won first became aware of the plight of North Korean refugees, during a business trip to the area in late 1995. It was the height of the winter, he recalls, and he was staring across the frozen river into North Korea, where the artificial fire of a revolutionary juche tower glowed from afar. ‘I saw what looked like two shoes on the ice, with no owner,’ Chun says. ‘Then I realized on close inspection that it was two feet of someone who had drowned and frozen under the ice.’

The unknown corpse, his guide told him, was just one of many North Koreans who perished making the perilous river crossing. In the summer of 1999, working for a missionary group, Chun returned to the border area and again saw bloated bodies being carried on the river’s swift spring current. ‘I went around China for a week, and I couldn’t stand it anymore,’ Chun says. ‘So I bought a book and learned how to use the Internet, and that was the beginning of Durihana.’

Today, Durihana is one of several groups that provides education, shelter and job training for North Korean refugees. Perhaps its most important work, however, continues to be the help it provides to refugees seeking passage from China to safe havens across Asia.

In 2000, Chun undertook his first aid mission, helping two defectors cross from southern China to Cambodia via Vietnam. Though he has helped around 900 people escape to South Korea, the work continues to involve a great deal of danger. In December 2001, Chun was arrested while attempting to smuggle a group of defectors from China into Mongolia, and was imprisoned for eight months.

Today, he says, the safest and most common route runs through China into Laos or Thailand, where the South Korean authorities are willing to offer help. Even then, refugees must hope for the mercy of foreign police and officials. Hyeon Bu-heong, who reached Seoul with Durihana’s help in 2005, says his group of defectors was jailed by authorities in both Laos and Burma, before the South Korean embassy in Rangoon intervened on their behalf. ‘We just took a small map and went across the border,’ he says.

Despite the growing difficulties facing defectors, Peters says North Korea’s policy of demanding the return of refugees from China might actually work to undermine the regime. ‘(It’s)a very self-defeating policy, because each one of these returning refugees is bringing back information and opinions, having watched South Korean TV programming in China,’ he says. ‘Each one of them has a kind of viral effect…They’re going to be sharing more of this with their family and their immediate circle of friends.’

Jeong Yu-mi, like many defectors, says she hopes for the eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula and that the rest of her people might enjoy the same freedom from fear and repression. Until then, she’s keen to be involved with the democratization of her homeland in any way she can. ‘I don’t have an interest in politics, but I’d like to change North Korea somehow,’ she says. ‘I’m not a prophet, but I hope.’

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh. His work has appeared in The Economist, Asia Times and The Phnom Penh Post among other publications. He can be reached at [email protected]