A Network Aids Fleeing N. Koreans
The rolling hills, amber cornfields, and thatched-roofed cottages that dot this northeast Chinese frontier town seem an unlikely outpost for an underground railway ferrying North Koreans away from hunger.
Yet some residents of Tumen and other Chinese cities and villages on the Chinese-North Korean border are secretly helping handfuls of refugees escape from the famine that is spreading across much of neighboring North Korea.
While most of its citizens remain trapped within one of the world's most closely guarded countries, "more and more North Koreans are attempting to slip past the patrols that line both sides of the border with China," says a local Chinese trader. "In some spots, the Tumen River [which divides the North and China] is only waist deep, and quite easy to ford."
"An increasing number of North Koreans are deciding the prospect of starvation at home outweighs the dangers of the crossing," says the trader, who frequently travels to the North.
International aid groups say 10 percent of North Korea's 23 million citizens may be in danger of starvation or severe malnutrition this year due to poor grain harvests and a collapsing economy.
Furtively crossing into China from the North is a crime in both countries, but neither side releases information about how many refugees are caught and forcibly returned.
There have been unconfirmed reports that the death penalty has been given to some North Koreans who attempt to leave the country, but "most are sent to prison," says the trader.
Some of the refugees who survive the journey to China are given sanctuary by sympathetic families who have transformed their homes into underground shelters, he adds.
The trader and a number of other residents who live near the border with the North say Chinese patrols are obligated to seize any refugees, and add that most guards are following that order.
"Some Chinese guards who sympathize with the refugees return them under cover of darkness in the hope that they will not be arrested on the other side of the border," says a Dandong-based Chinese businessman who shuttles between the North and China.
China is believed to be the largest supplier of food aid to the reclusive, Stalinist North.
But Beijing is also North Korea's "only strategic ally, and it does not want to offend Pyongyang by granting asylum to Korean refugees," says a Chinese government worker in Beijing.
Stories coming from the North
Meanwhile, many of the 2 million ethnic Koreans who live inside the Chinese border are contributing to a food lifeline for relatives in the North.
"Every year, my family sends corn and money to an uncle in North Korea," says a young Korean Chinese woman in northeastern Jilin Province. "His letters say his village is facing many hardships, but he never spells out the extent of the food shortage."
"Although they are stepping up private aid across the border," says the Chinese official "the 2 million ethnic Koreans here cannot possibly save all of North Korea."
A growing section of the Koreans who live in Liaoning or Jilin, the two Chinese provinces bordering the North, have begun forming an underground railroad to transport refugees to small hideaways in China, says a South Korean official.
The Chinese trader, himself an ethnic Korean, says "the most difficult part of the escape is crossing the North Korean border."
"Once inside China, the refugees can blend into the Korean communities that are scattered along the border as they adjust to life in China," he adds.
The South Korean official says that some Korean Chinese "hide refugees away from Chinese society for up to a year."
While in seclusion, he adds, "the refugees are fed and taught enough Chinese to get a job and survive, and are then edged out into the community."
But he says "the danger does not end at North Korea's border for many refugees."
Watchful eyes of North Korean agents
The South Korean official says that "scattered among the Korean Chinese populace are informers who are paid by Pyongyang to turn in any refugees."
He adds that diplomats at Pyongyang's consulate in Liaoning, which strides much of the border, along with North Koreans who run businesses in the area, are all required to report any refugees.
The Chinese government worker agrees, and adds that "many forced repatriations are carried out by North Korean security agents deployed on the Chinese side of the border."
The South Korean official says Seoul has been negotiating with Beijing to give free passage to North Korean refugees who make it to Chinese territory to travel on to the South.
He says that while a top North Korean official was permitted to defect while passing through Beijing earlier this year, the Chinese leadership has refused to guarantee similar treatment for all refugees.
Despite Beijing's unwillingness to enter into a pact on the issue, the South Korean government recently approved measures to begin building refugee centers to house North Koreans fleeing the famine, he adds.
China has been careful to balance its strategic and defense ties with communist North Korea against its growing trade relationship with the capitalist South.
While it has privately backed economic reforms in North Korea, "it does not want its neighbor to evolve into a democracy and reunite with the South," says the Chinese official.
"Any pact allowing refugees free access to the South would infuriate North Korea's leaders," he adds. "China does not want to endanger its friendship with Pyongyang by abandoning its neutrality towards the two Koreas."