OSAKA, JAPAN — Mrs. Pak left Japan more than 30 years ago to move to North Korea, her ancestral homeland. But after witnessing the horror of people dying all around her, she risked her family's safety to escape to Japan.
She left behind the North Korean famine of the 1990s, estimated by some to have taken the lives of 2 million people.
During the famine, thousands of starving people flocked to her area in search of food. "We tried to help them," says Mrs. Pak, as she would like to be known, "but they just kept pouring in."
One day, she saw a swollen body lying in a stream as she passed by. The body stayed there for several days. "I had always thought that North Korea had respect for human rights, [but] this person's body was treated as if it were a worm," she says. It was the beginning of doubts that pushed her to flee.
While the famine crisis has passed, North Korea is still one of the poorest and least transparent nations on the planet. In recent years, China has seen an unprecedented surge of desperate North Koreans spilling over its border. Estimates of the number of refugees vary widely, from 60,000 to 300,000.
Yesterday, 14 North Koreans scaled the wall of the South Korean Consulate in Beijing in search of asylum. Three made it into the building, while 11 were detained by Chinese guards or fled.
Twenty North Koreans entered the compound 10 days ago. Late last week, 29 refugees entered a South Korean school. And more than 40 North Koreans have been at the Canadian Embassy since last month.
China forcibly repatriates North Korean migrants and does not recognize them as refugees. Nongovernmental groups say that defectors face prison and even execution upon their return.
But now, the US has earmarked $24 million annually to support human rights groups in North Korea and to make North Koreans eligible for asylum in the US.
Experts say the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 is unlikely to create a sudden exodus similar to the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the law may well raise the profile of human rights abuses in North Korea, which in the long term could turn up the heat on China - the linchpin of Kim Jung Il's regime.
"The rise in the number of refugees and defectors is a sign that the state's control over the movement of its citizens is weakening somewhat," says Charles Armstrong, a North Korea expert at Columbia University in New York.
But to what extent that grip is loosening is unknown. Stories like Mrs. Pak's hint that the famine may have brought a certain degree of cynicism, though it is impossible to tell, given the closed nature of the regime. Scores of defectors have freely expressed their ill feelings once they were safely across the border.
Mr. Lee (not his real name), a defector who left North Korea in 2000, says that during the famine, "one of the only places to get food was the farmers' market, which became a de facto black market. Local police would chase people away but they would just keep coming back. Later, the government built a fence around the market and charged an entrance fee."
Mrs. Pak and Mr. Lee are both Japanese-born ethnic Koreans. Like many others of their generation, their families moved to North Korea during the 1960s to help it build what was being touted as a "communist paradise." For these two at least, the experience ended in disillusionment.
But some observers say that if Kim Jung Il could outlast the worst of the famine, he could also weather the flight of more refugees. Still, a substantial increase in those fleeing to China could upset Kim's relationship with Beijing.
Hiroshi Kato of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, says that the law may cause an increase in defectors, though it "will not happen automatically."
He says the Chinese have been concerned about an unstable North. This month, China, which reportedly has thousands of troops along its border with North Korea, moved elite troops to the border, though China has said they are there to help with a building project.
"They are preparing for the possibility of a massive outflow of refugees into China if North Korea were to collapse," he says.
Beijing wants to avoid a collapse at all costs. Concerns about the North's nuclear program are a key concern, as is the humanitarian crisis that an inpouring of destitute refugees would present. Beyond that, says Mr. Armstrong, "China's policy [of repatriating North Korean migrants] is a result of Beijing's desire to appear in control [of its own borders]. North Korean migrants are an embarrassment to China," he says.
The new law may cause China even further chagrin. Experts say it will enable US embassies in China to treat asylum cases less discreetly than before.
Mr. Kato says the attention the new US law could garner could place China squarely in the international hot seat.
"The North Korean Human Rights Act will force China to (eventually) change its policy of repatriating North Korean refugees," says Kato. "In turn, China will pressure North Korea to take measures to prevent [people] from crossing the border."
Kato believes that Chinese pressure on North Korea to stem the flow of migration could spur North Korea either to clamp down brutally on border traffic or continue with very modest economic reforms.
The granting of asylum in the US could become a problem for South Korea as well. In recent years, South Korea has been reluctant to encourage defection. It has stressed engagement and diplomacy, partly out of concerns that a more aggressive approach could trigger a devastating war or a costly implosion of Kim's regime.
• This report used material from Reuters.