China has long feared a flood of refugees from poverty-stricken North Korea should the current regime collapse. With regime change, tensions are again high on the border.Estimates vary widely, but it’s believed between 100,000-400,000 North Korea refugees live in China. Though thousands of North Koreans live under the radar in China, and move through its underground network to safer destinations, massive crackdowns have reduced their numbers dramatically in recent years.
In the Yanbian region, villagers recounted how police go door-to-door periodically to check for North Koreans, particularly checking the ethnically Korean locals to make sure they’re not harboring North Korean relatives. About 40 percent of this area’s 2 million residents are Korean — mostly second or third generation immigrants from North Korea. Many still have large families on the other side of the border, and increasingly fear for their health and safety as communications have tapered off.
In one small village within sight of the border, a couple recalled how they used to be able to help friends and family in North Korea by sending food and other gifts — once even sending back a black-and-white television. That’s impossible now, as even the local Christian church is no longer allowed to assist refugees who make it across to China.
“The church is much poorer than before, without much support,” said Wen. “If refugees did manage to come across now, they would have to get help from their relatives because the church can no longer help them.”
This is a common story in the North Korean border region, with South Korean ministers and church networks under tighter pressure. By controlling their ability to offer aid and refuge, the Chinese government limited options available to North Korean refugees, hence limiting their numbers.