A clandestine network that helps North Koreans escape through China has gone deeper underground because of the two U.S. journalists who were released by Pyongyang this month.
"Their arrest reverberated through the aid network," said Tim Peters, a missionary in Seoul who oversees aid work in northeast China. "It has made an already difficult situation 10 times more difficult. We now have to be more prudent in every phase of our operation."
Much remains unclear about precisely what evidence North Korean and Chinese authorities might have gotten their hands on after the journalists were detained by North Korean border guards.
The so-called underground refugee railroad is a loosely organized network of independent operators who seek to help defectors either for profit, or out of humanitarian interests.
The often-porous border between China and North Korea is a dangerous realm, where ruthless border guards and undercover Chinese and North Korean police menace both missionaries and refugees. In recent years, China has cracked down on the network, imprisoning those caught assisting North Korean defectors on charges that have included human trafficking.
"People in this network face dire consequences if discovered," said Scott Bruce, a North Korea analyst for the nonprofit Nautilus Institute, a public policy think tank. "China has engaged in vicious human rights violations to send these defectors back. North Korea has a real incentive to make examples of anyone trying to escape their workers paradise."
Peters, the missionary, said the border is more dangerous than ever. Even if Ling and Lee left their notes and video on the Chinese side when they approached the border, the move was irresponsible, he said.
"Everybody has to be hunkered down now simply because the Chinese now have more reason to try and break up these refugee networks," Peters said. "It's an embarrassment for them."
[Los Angeles Times]