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.
"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.
As the children of North Korean refugees reach school age, their parents are confronted with a difficult choice. HRNK's report, called "Lives for Sale," found that only about a third of these children were registered under China's household registration system, called hukou. Without hukou, these kids, known as "stateless children," cannot go to school, get textbooks, find a job, or go to a hospital.
"Their future is grim," says Tim Peters, human rights activist and founder of Helping Hands Korea, a Christian organization in Seoul that helps North Korean defectors. "Unless they get help, they have no future."
Estimates of the number of these children vary between a few thousand and several tens of thousands. Policies regarding the registration of these half-North Korean children vary depending on the district, but since 2007 many districts have started giving hukou in exchange for a fee.
'It was the only way'
In 2001, Kim Dong-ryul, a farmer, went to register his then-3-year-old son after his North Korean wife was deported. He says he was asked to present an official document stating his son's mother had been arrested, and bring three witnesses to confirm her repatriation. Mr. Kim, who saves 1,000 yuan ($150) a year, also had to pay 500 yuan, which he borrowed from friends and family.
Others pay bribes so their unregistered children can attend school. The 4-year-old daughter of Kim Mi-sung, a North Korean defector from Gilju who uses a pseudonym, goes to a kindergarten without hukou. Ms. Kim has to pay 400 yuan a year for books, which are usually given free.
When her daughter was born, Kim and her Chinese husband were asked to pay 1,000 yuan to register, but the couple, who bring in around 1,500 yuan a year, couldn't afford it. On lucky days, Kim gets work in the fields and is paid 30 yuan for 10 hours of work.
"I am very worried," says Kim. "She will still be able to go to primary school, but I don't know what will happen to her after."
Kim's and Lee's children are taken care of, but that's not the rule. "In most cases, Chinese men see North Korean women as a commodity. They don't feel responsible for the children," says Mr. Peters, who also helps run orphanages around the region. "Even when they do, they are too poor and unable to care for them."
Lee's son is one of the luckier ones. He now goes to school, has many friends, and is a good student. Lee talks to Kang once a week and went to visit him in April after she received a South Korean passport. But she feels the cost of his success every day she's apart from her son.
"It was the only way," says Lee with tears in her eyes.