For many North Koreans who have joined an exodus from their country, life across the border in northeast China is becoming increasingly dangerous.
As many as 250,000 North Koreans have fled famine and repression, and "now face round-ups by the Chinese and punishment, imprisonment or worse if they are repatriated," says Kongdan Oh, an expert on North Korea at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Va. "China is trying to track them down and send them back," says Ms. Oh.
In the past several months, Chinese security forces have swept throughout border areas to find and detain North Koreans. Several thousand of these refugees have been returned, according to an international aid worker who frequently travels to the region.
While China's Communist ally, North Korea, is demanding the refugees' return, its capitalist trading partner to the south "is pressing the Chinese government to grant the refugees safe passage to South Korea," says a senior South Korean official.
The leaders of the divided Korean peninsula will be able to talk about the refugee issue face to face next week at a historic inter-Korean summit. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung "will definitely try to reach a solution to the refugee question," says the South Korean official, who asked not to be identified.
Yet the official adds that the North, which remains one of the most isolated nations on earth, is unlikely to agree anytime soon to give up the fight to recapture its citizens.
Last week, on the eve of the first trip by Pyongyang's Stalinist leader, Kim Jong Il, to Beijing in 17 years, "North Korea applied strong pressure on the Chinese to repatriate the refugees, and the Chinese did their best to comply," says the aid worker. But "when these refugees are captured and returned, they can face anything from a warning to a prison camp to execution," he says.
The North's dictators "need scapegoats to punish as models to scare the rest of the North Korean populace," says analyst Oh. China publicly agrees with the North's classification of the refugees as "economic migrants" who are not entitled to political asylum.
"We have a treaty with North Korea that obligates us to return North Koreans who enter China illegally," says a Chinese official in Beijing. "And lately, the North has been stepping up demands that we repatriate the North Koreans - especially those who are party members or political criminals," he adds.
But China also faces intensifying pressure from the UN to grant political asylum to the North Koreans and facilitate their travel to the South. China has come under fire since January, when seven North Koreans managed to escape to Russia, and Moscow unexpectedly expelled them to China. Beijing, in turn, repatriated the group.
An official at the Beijing office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says, "These seven North Koreans had contacted our [Russian] office, and they were determined to be refugees entitled to protection."
China, which has signed the international convention on refugees, flouted the UN by denying the North Koreans political asylum. "We at the UN obviously had serious concerns, as did other international actors," says the UNHCR official.
Since then, the commission has notified Beijing of its displeasure and is still engaged in talks over the fate of the many other North Koreans who remain hidden in the Chinese countryside.
The Chinese official says that "some moderates in the Communist Party realize that returning these refugees is hurting China's international image, and they are recommending a rethinking of the refugee policy." He adds that when Chinese officials met with Kim Jong Il during his secret trip here last week, "They hinted that if the North adopted Chinese-style market reforms, it could feed its people and stop the refugee flow."
Ms. Oh says that North Korea's famine, caused by years of bad weather and rigid state controls over the populace and the economy, "might have caused the deaths of between 1.5 million and 3 million North Koreans" over the past five years.
North Koreans who manage to escape to China are often given refuge by ethnic Korean Chinese families and by "Buddhist leaders and Christian missionaries from South Korea," says the aid worker. "The North Koreans who have contact with religious figures from the South are subject to the harshest punishments if they are caught and returned."
Meanwhile, the Chinese official says Beijing is caught between a rock and a hard place by the conflicting demands from Pyongyang to detain the refugees and from Seoul to free them to travel to the South. "If we grant political asylum to one refugee today, there could be thousands or millions of North Koreans who might flood China for the same opportunity," he says.
While a debate goes in the corridors of political power here on the refugees, China's security forces seem to have already voted on the issue. "Right now, we have so many border guards and patrols that few North Koreans are likely to make it past their own sentries and ours," the Chinese official says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society