Beijing's refusal to help the increasing number of North Koreans who flee their politically repressive and famine-hit country is fueling perilous escapes across China to Southeast Asia, activists said.
The arrival of 450 refugees in South Korea via Vietnam highlighted the growing need for North Koreans to take great risks to sneak out of China after escaping their own country, overseas aid groups said.
"The Chinese are not making things easier," said Tim Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea, a Seoul-based NGO which assists the refugees.
Beijing considers the North Koreans illegal economic migrants instead of refugees and repatriates as many as 100 a week to the Stalinist state, where they face imprisonment, torture and sometimes even execution, rights groups say.
The refugees used to storm into foreign embassies in China to seek passage to South Korea but Beijing has stepped up security in the past two years. Many now have travel across continent-sized China to Southeast Asia.
"This is the only way for them to come out and save their lives," said Hiroshi Kato, head of the Japan-based Life Funds for North Korean Refugees.
Most of the estimated 300,000 North Koreans hiding in China want to leave if they can, aid groups said. Their status as illegal immigrants leaves them in constant fear with little chance of a normal life.
"[It] is a testimony of how difficult it is to cross not only the Tumen River (from North Korea) into China but cross the entire breadth of China, knowing full well they are fugitives and if they are caught, they're repatriated," Peters said. "It's phenomenal that they make it at all."
The journey to Southeast Asia is full of dangers, but also stories of courage and compassion, activists said.
The case reveals an extensive underground network that ferries the refugees to countries including Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
"Without the underground railroad network, we can't do anything," said Kato. "There are so many people who help along the way -- sometimes, even in short distances of two to three kilometers, 20 kilometers, 100 kilometers -- so many pieces of the network."
South Koreans, including activists and sympathetic businessmen, make up the bulk of volunteers. Others are Japanese, Westerners or ethnic Koreans from the United States or Europe.
Volunteers also set up safehouses along the way. Beijing has begun arresting activists, accusing them of stirring up trouble, but this has not stopped them.
"They provide food, shelter, railway tickets," Kato said.
It takes three to 10 days to travel from the North Korean border to southeast China and trains are one of the few modes of travel available. But the Koreans face arrest if train police demand to see IDs.
The "Southeast Asian route" has existed since 1997, but was seldom used due to its long distance.
North Koreans preferred travelling from China's Inner Mongolian province across the grasslands to Mongolia.
Once there, they are basically safe. The Mongolian government is more lenient and allows the defectors to reach the South Korean embassy in Ulan Bator.
But China sometimes blocks off the borders with Mongolia and with the extra security at foreign embassies in Beijing, the Southeast Asian route became the most frequently used.
Vietnam is the preferred destination as the border with China is relatively easy to cross. Each day, large numbers of people go back and forth to sell merchandise and smuggled goods, including drugs.
The underground network makes use of the drug traffickers and also the human smugglers -- who smuggle Chinese without visas and have connections with Chinese border guards -- to sneak North Koreans across.
"They help for a fee of 700 to 1,000 US dollars per person, which includes the money to bribe the border guards and the risk they take," said Lee Ho-Taek, founder of the Seoul-based aid group The Refuge Pnan.
Currently hundreds of Korean refugees are believed to be gathered in Southeast Asian nations awaiting a chance to reach South Korea.
China will likely step up security on its southeastern borders, but that will not stop the flow, activists said, as guards and traffickers can always be tempted.
The Chinese foreign ministry had no immediate response. Besides wanting to preserve good ties with Pyongyang for strategic purposes, Beijing fears an influx of Korean refugees and a collapse of the North's regime.
But Peters said China's policy was unsustainable in terms of its international reputation and treaty obligations.
"Maybe now with South Korea accepting larger numbers of refugees, that will send a signal to China," he added.
[Excerted from Yahoo News article]