The hidden exodus from North Korea has unfolded for more than a decade. In past years, refugees coming across the border knew little of China. But since China has repatriated large numbers of North Koreans, probably in the tens of thousands, those who wish to escape now have information before they go.
"When they cross over the border now, they always have some knowledge: which route to go, daytime or nighttime, which villages to avoid, which churches to go to," said a South Korean activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because China could imprison him for his campaign to help refugees.
The activist said refugees now moved as far inland in China as possible, sometimes living for years with the help of ethnic Koreans in northeast China or South Korean businessmen in populous coastal Shandong province or around Shanghai.
Until this year, the United States accepted only high-level defectors from North Korea, not common refugees. But under the terms of the 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act, Washington opened the doors to refugees. Six entered the United States in May; three others arrived in late July.
Maybe half the North Koreans hiding in China want to remain there, said Tim A. Peters, founder of Helping Hands Korea, a Seoul-based group that assists the refugees.
"The other half have set their sights on a distant horizon, either South Korea or the U.S. or elsewhere," Peters said.