Conditions in North Korea have created a verifiable flood of refugees, who cross by the thousands into China, attempting to escape persecution and near-famine conditions caused by economic mismanagement.
Washington estimates there are between 20,000 and 30,000 North Koreans in China trying to make their way to asylum in a third country, mostly in South Korea. Private aid groups put the estimate much higher, at 100 to 150,000.
Tim Peters, a Christian activist here in Seoul, says the highest estimate may come from Beijing itself. "We have good reason to believe from Chinese government sources that the Chinese themselves put the number at 400,000," he said.
Peters, who heads the North Korean refugee assistance group Helping Hands Korea, has an extensive network of contacts with Christian activists in China and Southeast Asia. The informal network is widely referred to as the "Underground Railroad" - an analogy with activists who helped slaves escape in the 19th century United States.
Peters says the Chinese have taken steps indicating they expect the flow of North Korean refugees to increase. In addition to building barbed wire fences at key border crossing areas, he says China is investing in high-tech surveillance. "Not only cameras, state-of-the-art cameras, but now also motion sensors have been added to the cameras. There seems to be a centralized control for the cameras," he explained.
Under a treaty with Pyongyang, China is obliged to repatriate North Koreans, who often face harsh punishment for leaving without permission. However, Peters says there are signs Beijing may be sending fewer North Koreans home since the recent North Korean nuclear test. "Since the nuclear test there seems to be some indication that the Chinese have slowed down repatriation," noted Peters.
[Voice of America News]