In an upscale coffee shop, Choi Kyong-chol clutches his knapsack. All his worldly valuables are in the small black bag.
A North Korean refugee – a farmer who escaped to Seoul this year – Mr. Choi is still a bit dazed by the big city. A year ago, Choi lived on a pig farm in north China with his family, also escapees from hunger in North Korea. But one day, Chinese police came to the family hut, handcuffed the five Chois, and sent them home.
Arriving at a North Korean jail, they were made to stand and sit until Choi's mother fainted. Weeks later, they were released, "dumped into an empty field," as Choi says. Immediately they plotted to go back to China. "We had no money, no food, no future."
On March 14, 2002 Choi and 24 other North Koreans rushed into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing, as TV cameras rolled. That dash marked the first sight, for much of the world, of a special problem – runaways from the world's last Stalinist regime – that until recently had not even been identified.
Since the mid-1990s, North Korean runaways have been voiceless and largely powerless pawns in a geopolitical conundrum: China doesn't especially want them, and the North will punish them if they return. They live in a silent daily struggle along China's border, where crossing a small river is a ticket to a new world, albeit one where they might be arrested.
Since the Spanish Embassy event, the policing of illegal Koreans in China has intensified. Along the border, China has heightened a two-year crackdown – with stepped-up house-to-house searches, leaflets warning villagers not to help, and bounties paid to informants, according to seven recent escapees interviewed for this report.
China has been cracking down on the underground railroad – run mostly by Christians from South Korea.
"About 95 percent of the people over there helping are Christians," says one such worker. "We act in cells. We don't want to compromise each other."
According to Tim Peters, an aid worker in Seoul, some Chinese make up to 2,500 yuan ($400), to identify any of the missionaries who troll the border.
The character of the escapees from the North is changing, according to refugee interviews and expert testimony. Those crossing are no longer simply looking for food. Flows have thickened to include teachers, doctors, and other members of middle and upper classes. The numbers have grown so high that, for the most part, the North does not take harsh actions on first time offenders sent back, considered "betrayers" of the state.But for second- or third-time offenders returned to the North, penalties include beatings, torture, or prison camp – – especially if they were seeking to live in the South, or say they were helped by Christians.
Choi and his sister dug a hole at the foot of a hill outside one border town, where they could sleep. Choi soon felt he needed to move away from the border, deeper into China, but travel was difficult. "You need to travel, and you need to go by bus or train. But you get nervous when you go to buy a ticket. The number of checkpoints is higher. The police stop and search buses, and then there is nothing you can do. You are caught."
Before he could go, Choi got word that his father was impatient and wanted to leave North Korea. To this day, he hasn't seen them.
Eventually Choi met a railroad worker in China. Choi will say nothing about these contacts, other than that they took place through someone who knew his father.
Over the course of several "interviews," Choi says he was asked by railroad workers what he wanted. He said, "freedom." Did he want to escape? "Yes." He was then asked how he felt about a risky plan to go to South Korea by way of Beijing. He said, "I feel doomed anyway. I can sit here and be doomed, or I can go forward. I want to go forward."
Until Choi got to Beijing, he says, he didn't really understand the plan, did not realize that Norbert Vollertsen, part of an international group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), had cased the German Embassy the night before and found the security too tight. Not until the Koreans rushed the Spanish Embassy, their alternate plan, did Choi grasp what he was part of.
[From an article by Robert Marquand in The Christian Science Monitor]