In 2000, Beijing reversed its lenient attitude and started organizing nationwide manhunts, offering rewards to those who turn in North Korean refugees and fining and even jailing those who help them.
"Since the beginning of 2005, the Chinese have been catching and expatriating about 400 to 500 people a week," says U.S. Christian missionary Tim Peters, who heads Helping Hands Korea, a group that assists refugees from the North.
That means at least 20,000 to 25,000 North Koreans are attempting to escape the country yearly.
Only a handful of those end up in South Korea. There are just over 6,500 officially registered North Korean refugees in the South and the numbers of newcomers have been steadily dropping.
Refugee supporters blame the downward trend on a combination of factors. They say the Chinese government's pressure to stop the exodus on its side of the border has been matched with an increase in summary trials and executions on the North Korean side.
"In recent months the North has stepped up the number of public executions, hoping they can serve as a deterrent for people who want to escape," says Kim Sang Hun, a 70-year-old retired United Nations official and human rights activist.
Rare video footage of summary executions in the North showing blindfolded prisoners shot in the head was smuggled through China to South Korea earlier this year. But South Korean authorities have barred the airing of the secret tape, fearing it might upset Pyongyang and harm fragile North-South relations.
[Excerpted from an article by Antoaneta Bezlova, Inter Press Service News Agency]