Every year, hundreds of North Koreans fleeing hunger, poverty and oppression cross the border into China, hoping to continue on to South Korea. Beijing sees them as illegal economic migrants subject to repatriation. North Korean law mandates a minimum two-year prison sentence for those who leave.
The issue has put South Korea and China at loggerheads; meanwhile, defectors and activists contend that humanitarian issues get short shrift.
"When I came to China, I learned that people in North Korea eat worse than a pig in China," said a 34-year-old North Korean woman who revealed only her surname, Moon.
Refugees do make it to South Korea, although scenes of North Koreans being greeted with flowers don't always ensue.
A 24-year-old defector living in South Korea said escaping from China was somewhat easier than dealing with confrontational South Korean Embassy and National Intelligence Service (NIS) officials. She lived in China for several years before a failed escape attempt through Burma. Eventually, she left China and in 2002 went to the South Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
"We went in and sat down, and my wife just said: 'I'm a North Korean. I want to defect,'" said her American husband, who was with her at the time. "She apparently had been the first one there. They didn't know what to do."
After several frustrating days, South Korean authorities allowed them to fly to Seoul, the couple said. But when they arrived, NIS agents boarded the plane, cursing and roughing them up. "They were just totally anti-defector," said the American, who speaks fluent Korean. "It's always been that way."
Activists have tried many novel ways to get refugees out of China, from high-profile dashes using ladders to climb into embassy compounds in Beijing to desert drives to the Mongolian border to risky land routes through Burma, Thailand and Vietnam.
"New routes are being looked for all the time," said Tim Peters, the founder of Helping Hands Korea, a group that raises funds for clandestine operations to move refugees out of China. "Old routes get discovered and get shut down."
[Excerpt of an article by Jeremy Kirk, The Washington Times]