Stateless children: North Korean refugees in China
Thousands of children exist in legal limbo, missing out on school and other state services because their mothers fear deportation.
SEOUL, South Korea
One night in autumn of 2003, Lee Mi-young, a North Korean defector living in China, kissed her 9-month-old son, Kang, on the forehead, looked at her son's Chinese father who had taken care of her for two years, and hugged him. Then she walked out and left her family behind.Skip to next paragraph
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"It was terrible," says Ms. Lee, who uses a pseudonym for fear of repercussions. "But I had to leave, so my son could have a future."
Lee's son, like many children born to North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers in the northeastern region of China, was in legal limbo. Although Chinese law grants citizenship to children of Chinese nationals, many fathers don't register their children because they fear the children's mothers could be arrested and repatriated to North Korea, or they can't afford the bribes required. This leaves the children without access to education and other social services, and that's why Lee decided to leave. With her out of the picture, Kang could be registered as Chinese.
She took a five-hour bus ride to the Chinese city of Dandong, where she worked as a waitress to save money. "I was always scared and could never go out," says Lee, who knew that if caught, she would be sent back to North Korea. After three years in Dandong, she saved enough to send 3,000 yuan to her Chinese "husband" to pay for her son's registration. In 2008, she moved to Seoul, South Korea.
A wave of refugees to China
North Korean flight to China started in the mid-1990s during a famine that is estimated to have killed around 1 million people. In search of food and work, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, mainly from the northern provinces, crossed to China. Many intended to stay for a few months, make some money, and return to feed their families. Some, like Lee, stayed. Many of the defectors are now concentrated in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin Province.
China considers North Koreans "illegal economic migrants" and regularly arrests and deports them. The regime of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il considers leaving without state permission treason, and harshly punishes those caught with detention, torture, and sometimes death.
Women make up the majority of those who flee, according to a report this year from the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). And because of lopsided demographics in poor areas of northeastern China, many Chinese men are eager for North Korean brides, though the marriages are not recognized officially. Some women who flee to China, because of their vulnerable situation, are forced into marriage.