For North Koreans attempting to escape starvation, torture, repression, and worse, the “new underground” begins just over the border in China. Because of China’s official political support of North Korea, the Chinese government refuses to recognize escapees as refugees (even though China has signed the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees). Nor does China allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to operate in the country.
North Koreans in China live constantly under threat of arrest and repatriation. Women are often trafficked, sold as “brides” in response to a shortage of partners in China (due to that country's history of male preference that has created a “sex imbalance … [of] epic proportions”). The children of these North Korean/Chinese unions perhaps suffer the most, trapped in stateless limbo: The fear of exposing a North Korean mother’s illegal status prevents a Chinese father from officially registering the child who, in effect, doesn’t exist and therefore has no access to education and healthcare.