Most North Koreans who attempt to flee from their Stalinist nation's worsening food shortage are unlikely to make it through the wall of informers and border guards that blocks their passage to China.
North Koreans are already fleeing. But the Communist leadership of one of the most heavily guarded nations on earth is relying on the rings of security that surround virtually every North Korean to prevent a mass exodus.
The webs of Pyongyang's security apparatus, which are now entangling those who seek escape from escalating famine, extend even beyond the nation's borders, say Chinese and South Korean officials and scholars.
Millions of North Koreans could face severe malnutrition or starvation if foreign food aid is not sharply increased soon. Few are expected to successfully cross the mined demilitarized zone with South Korea or the heavily guarded border with China.
A famine has already begun among the North's populace, and the size of the crisis is likely to be far greater than previously estimated, say officials and scholars. The country has been running low on food for years due to an inefficient, state-run agricultural system. Flooding in recent years has worsened the situation.
"The old, the weak, and the very young ... have already begun dying from hunger," says a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
A government official here says reports from Chinese who have traveled to the North in recent months paint a picture far bleaker than North Korea admits.
"The fate of up to one-third of North Korea's 23 million people might rest on whether massive grain shipments are begun immediately," adds a senior South Korean official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He compares North Korea's all-encompassing security system to a checkerboard where moves from any of the closely monitored towns or villages to any other town or village required a government permit. Any would-be defector faces layers of government informers, police, and soldiers in an atmosphere of suspicion. "Except for those who live near the Chinese border, it is virtually impossible to flee from the North's widening waves of hunger," he says.
"Beijing has not begun building any refugee camps because it has confidence that North Korea's extensive security system will prevent any sizable rush across the border," says the Chinese social scientist.
But some of the 2 million Chinese-Koreans who live near the Chinese border have begun forming an underground railroad to transport refugees to China, says the South Korean official. "The danger does not end at North Korea's border," he says. "There have been consistent reports that China has returned refugees under its treaty with the North, and it is believed that some have been executed after repatriation."
Diplomats at North Korea's consulate in Liaoning - the Chinese province that sits astride much of the border - along with North Korean businessmen there, are required to report any refugees.
The Chinese official confirmed most details of the South Korean official's account and said "most forced repatriations are carried out by North Korean security agents who cross the border."
But "initial reports of refugees being executed upon being sent back ... has created a strong backlash in Beijing's senior leadership," he says. "China is facing an impossible dilemma.
"On the one hand, North Korea is an important strategic ally, and Beijing doesn't want to offend Pyongyang by giving the refugees sanctuary or helping them to make it to the South.
"On the other hand, China does not want to return the North Koreans ... if it means death by execution or starvation," he says. China, he says, is moving toward adopting a neutral position on the issue. South Korea, however, is urging Beijing to guarantee safe passage to any North Koreans who manage to cross.
China may have set a precedent when it allowed Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking official ever to have defected, to leave South Korea's consulate in Beijing last month. Mr. Hwang arrived in Seoul Sunday after a few weeks in the Philippines.
"We are trying to convince the Chinese leadership to regard Mr. Hwang's defection as a model case for handling all future refugees from North Korea," says the South Korean official.