A refugee's perilous odyssey from N. Korea

N. Koreans continue to seek escape routes through China, despite Beijing's crackdown

In an upscale coffee shop, Choi Kyong-chol clutches his knapsack. All his worldly valuables are in the small black bag.

A North Korean refugee – a farmer who escaped to Seoul this year – Mr. Choi is still a bit dazed by the big city. A year ago, Choi lived on a pig farm in north China with his family, also escapees from hunger in North Korea. But one day, Chinese police came to the family hut, handcuffed the five Chois, and sent them home.

Arriving at a North Korean jail, they were made to stand and sit until Choi's mother fainted. Weeks later, they were released, "dumped into an empty field," as Choi says. Immediately they plotted to go back to China. "We had no money, no food, no future."

On March 14, Choi and 24 other North Koreans rushed into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing, as TV cameras rolled. That dash marked the first sight, for much of the world, of a special problem – runaways from the world's last Stalinist regime – that until recently had not even been identified. Since the mid-1990s, some 200,000 North Korean runaways have been voiceless and largely powerless pawns in a geopolitical conundrum: China doesn't especially want them, and the North will punish them if they return. They live in a silent daily struggle along China's border, where crossing a small river is a ticket to a new world, albeit one where they might be arrested.

Neither China nor South Korea wishes to provoke the unpredictable North. The issue is so sensitive that it wasn't raised publicly at high level North-South talks here this week.

In China, these refugees have no status and no rights, and are illegals. China did not regard Choi, for example, as a "refugee."

South Korea has officially increased its intake of North Koreans from 148 in 1999, to 553 last year, and an estimated thousand this year. The unofficial figure is higher, sources for this report confirm. Since March, more than 30 North Koreans have escaped into embassies or consulates in China, including two brothers this week who scaled the Albanian Embassy fence.

Beijing crackdown

Since the Spanish Embassy event, the policing of illegal Koreans in China has intensified. Along the border, China has heightened a two-year crackdown – with stepped-up house-to-house searches, leaflets warning villagers not to help, and bounties paid to informants, according to seven recent escapees interviewed for this report. Meanwhile Beijing, eager for a "buffer" state between China and South Korea, is trying to improve relations with Pyongyang.

The refugees are caught literally and figuratively in the middle. They live in a netherworld between those hunting them and a frail underground railroad of intrepid volunteers who are aiding them. When they cross the border, they enter a patchwork of shifting zones of safety and danger. They hide during the day. They try not to speak their broken Chinese. To leave China, some burrow in trucks of potatoes, claw through Laotian jungles, and float down the Mekong River. Others are shepherded to Mongolia. One young man walked across the frozen Yalu River in February, obtained a fake passport, and flew to freedom in less than a month – for $10,000. For most, the journey is longer.

China also has been cracking down on the underground railroad – run mostly by Christians from South Korea. The groups operate under names like "Good Friends," and "Exodus 21."

"About 95 percent of the people over there helping are Christians," says one such worker. "We don't talk about it much. We act in cells. We don't want to compromise each other. Right now, we are being shut down."

Last week China released Chun Ki-won, a South Korean Christian missionary and central figure among "railroad workers," as they call themselves. Mr. Chun was picked up last December on the border of Mongolia, helping a family get to South Korea.

Chun's arrest was a symbolic "statement" by Beijing, say railroad workers. At the height of the North's famine in the late 1990s, local Chinese police gave a wink and a nod to those helping Koreans. Usually the workers bribed their way out of arrest. But today, according to Tim Peters, an aid worker in Seoul, under a Beijing-directed policy, some Chinese make up to 2,500 yuan ($400), to identify any of the missionaries who troll the border.

Escapees are scattered across Asia. Choi's father and sister were rearrested in China and sit in a North Korean jail. His mother is hiding in China.

The character of the escapees from the North is changing, according to refugee interviews and expert testimony. Those crossing are no longer simply looking for food. Flows have thickened to include teachers, doctors, and other members of middle and upper classes. The numbers have grown so high that, for the most part, the North does not take harsh actions on first time offenders sent back, considered "betrayers" of the state.

But for second- or third-time offenders returned to the North, penalties include beatings, torture, or prison camp – especially if they were seeking to live in the South, or say they were helped by Christians. One new interrogation strategy is to show a cross, and ask if the refugee has seen one, say those interviewed.

Many single women from the North go into China to be married off, or to work as prostitutes. But most runaways seek to work in local factories and farms. They cross regularly, send money back to the North, and in many places along the Chinese border, are stealthily part of the economic fabric.

The long journey

Many escapees, have relatives in China. During the Japanese occupation, lasting from 1912 to 1945, Koreans were moved into China for labor, and hundreds of villages along the border are majority Korean. But for Choi, who had no relatives, the Korean villages in China, where everyone knows everyone else, are not safe for hiding.

His story is typical: When the Chois were released from the North Korean jail, they stayed with a farmer who told them of a border guard who, for 200 won, (20 cents), would look the other way. Choi and his sister walked out through a rail tunnel at night. Their plan was to find work in China and send money back so their parents could cross. During their first escape in 1999, the Chois found shelter by going from farm house to farm house looking for a Korean family. This time, however, nothing went right.

"Going to China is completely alien to us anyway. It is a shock to go. When we escaped the first time, we found Korean families. We had to be careful. But it was OK," Choi says. "This time there was fear all around. I was shown posters saying that Northerners should be informed on."

So for a while, Choi and his sister dug a hole at the foot of a hill outside one border town, where they could sleep. Choi soon felt he needed to move away from the border, deeper into China, but travel was difficult. "You need to travel, and you need to go by bus or train. But you get nervous when you go to buy a ticket. The number of checkpoints is higher. The police stop and search buses, and then there is nothing you can do. You are caught."

Before he could go, Choi got word that his father was impatient and wanted to leave North Korea. To this day, he hasn't seen them.

Eventually Choi met a railroad worker in China. Choi will say nothing about these contacts, other than that they took place through someone who knew his father.

Over the course of several "interviews," Choi says he was asked by railroad workers what he wanted. He said, "freedom." Did he want to escape? "Yes." He was then asked how he felt about a risky plan to go to South Korea by way of Beijing. He said, "I feel doomed anyway. I can sit here and be doomed, or I can go forward. I want to go forward."

Until Choi got to Beijing, he says, he didn't really understand the plan, did not realize that Norbert Vollertsen, part of an international group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), had cased the German Embassy the night before and found the security too tight. Not until the Koreans rushed the Spanish Embassy, their alternate plan, did Choi grasp what he was part of.

A sensitive political issue

Critics say the Spanish Embassy publicity is to blame for the intensified crackdown on Koreans in China. NGOs say the event was a symptom – not a cause – born of frustration with a crackdown that got little attention.

To Chinese authorities, most runaways are not classified as refugees or asylum-seekers, but as economic migrants.

"Sadly, I agree with China's position," says a South Korean expert at a leading university here. "Beijing doesn't have much choice, and there is an agreement to repatriate with Pyongyang. Most refugees are there for money. If China accepts them, that will create bad tension."

For South Korea, the issue of asylum-seekers runs squarely into President Kim Dae Jung's policy of engagement with the North. The South's policy hinges on a gradual improvement of relations, not provocation.

Refugee advocates say the South's policy ignores the pain of refugee families. "If you blur your eyes, so you can't see the suffering, and close your ears so you can't hear the cries – then you can look 20 years down the road to improved North-South relations," says aid worker Mr. Peters.

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