Stemming flow of N. Korea refugees

Their plight grows worse as China seeks to tighten restrictions at the border

February 24, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TUMEN, China - The snow-specked mountains that rise on both sides of the frozen Tumen River, marking the border with North Korea, mask a harsh reality here in the cold, far reaches of northeastern China.

For North Koreans, this has become treacherous territory, the site of a cold last stand for uncounted would-be refugees, some of them succumbing to below-zero temperatures, others caught by Chinese or North Korean border troops.

Refugees who manage to make it into China may still end up back here, inside a pink concrete building with matching turrets that sits like a quaint castle on a Chinese hillside. It is the Yanbian Border Defense Military Detention and Inspection Center, where China detains North Korean refugees before busing them back across the river, to almost certain imprisonment.

While the United States searches for ways to restrain North Korea's nuclear ambitions, China is working with North Korea to stem a flow of refugees trying to escape starvation and the repression of the regime.

Those who reach China and stay face a difficult existence - a life spent in hiding and in constant fear of apprehension by Chinese authorities or North Korean agents. The tension is also felt by individuals working underground to help refugees, an informal aid community that has become more cautious and fearful of detection.

"It's too sensitive," said a native South Korean who is active in the Korean Christian community in Yanbian Prefecture, a region in China's Jilin Province that is home to about 900,000 ethnic Koreans. "Two years ago, you could meet with [refugees] officially even. Now, that's impossible."

"Only one-to-one meetings, underground, are possible. But only underground, to meet, to find out, `What are your conditions? How are you doing?'"

The Yanbian prefecture, which includes about 325 miles of the 870-mile Chinese-North Korean border, has been a favored first destination for North Koreans since the North began suffering a devastating famine in the mid-1990s. The Tumen River is narrow and shallow here, making it easy to cross, especially in winter. Korean is widely spoken, and many ethnic Koreans feel a strong bond with their neighbors in the North.

But conditions for the refugees are much more difficult now, as the government has tightened its restrictions in recent years. Two years ago, as many as 200,000 North Koreans lived illegally in northern China, aid workers estimate. Today the number who remain may be as low as 20,000.

International human rights groups condemn China's actions, arguing that the North Koreans are escaping political repression and merit protection under international covenants.

Not owed protection

Chinese authorities counter that the North Koreans being repatriated are illegal immigrants crossing for economic purposes, not because of political prosecution, and are not owed special protection. Chinese and western scholars say China's main concern is preserving the stability of the North Korean regime, lest its collapse produce chaos and a flood of refugees.

In recent years, about 130 North Koreans have managed to enter foreign embassies and diplomatic compounds in Beijing and other Chinese cities to seek asylum, and almost all have been granted safe passage out of the country. This increasingly publicized tactic embarrassed and angered the Chinese government and, activists here said, may have sparked a crackdown that began last spring.

Last month, Chinese police arrested at least 48 North Koreans trying to flee by boat from the Chinese port of Yantai to South Korea and Japan - as well as three other persons accused of collaborating to help the refugees escape, according to human rights groups.

Some activists in Yanbian, more than 600 miles from Beijing, said undercover North Korean agents are posing as refugees, coming to churches and to the campus of a private university in the city of Yanji that is supported by Korean and American Christian funds. One man who recently approached a Korean Christian church raised suspicions, an activist said, by his well-nourished appearance.

Making matters worse for refugees is that local ethnic Koreans have become less accommodating, because the North Koreans have developed a reputation for theft and violent crime.

"We are all the same family, so in the beginning when they asked for help, we were very welcoming," said one 27-year-old church member in Yanji, the prefecture capital, and who, like most people working with the refugees, asked not to be named. "Now people are more concerned about their safety."

All of this has pushed refugees further underground, to homes in more remote, poorer locations. Along the narrow, unpaved paths of densely packed urban Korean neighborhoods, refugees used to be a relatively common sight, and they would ask residents for a little money, food, clothes or a place to stay. Such encounters have become rare.

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