After China detains activists helping would-be North Korean defectors, concerns grow that escape routes for those fleeing from North Korea might be shut down, with estimates suggesting the country’s gulag’s holds some 200,000 political prisoners.
SEOUL – “I was smuggled over the Yalu River into China”, recalls *So Yeon, a woman from Chongjin, a city in the now-decrepit industrial zone of northern North Korea,
A night-time crossing, over the Yalu or Tumen rivers that mark the North Korea-China frontier, is the usual means by which North Koreans flee their country, to what they hope will be a better life elsewhere.
Most hope to make it South Korea, by a roundabout, dangerous odyssey that usually involves a trek through China to either Mongolia or to Southeast Asia, without official papers and under constant fear of arrest and possible deportation back to North Korea. The heavily-fortified and guarded 241 kilometer frontier between the two Koreas makes a direct southern escape difficult-to-impossible.
An American Christian activist based in Seoul, asking not to be named, says that his organisation works in China’s borderlands with North Korea, helping those who make it across the Yalu River to then get on the “underground railroad”. This is the nickname for the secretive system by which North Koreans try to escape to South Korea, aided by an alliance of western and Korean activists and funders, and based on a step-by-step route of safe houses and hopping from bus to car to train.
“Women who cross into China are especially vulnerable to trafficking”, says the American, adding “and they are also vulnerable to forced repatriation by the Chinese authorities”. Those sent back face likely imprisonment, and worse, alongside the perhaps 200,000 others thought to be jailed in North Korea’s gulag. Yesterday, U.N. rapporteur on North Korean human rights Marzuki Darusman said that satellite imagery suggests that North Korea’s prison camps have expanded in recent years.
For So Yeon, on top of the US$500 it cost her to be smuggled across the frontier – the price she paid for what she hoped would be freedom was almost three years of forced marriage to a Chinese man.
She refuses to discuss that marriage, skipping straight to her escape south through China, to Vietnam and then Cambodia, on the ‘underground railroad’ via which North Korean defectors usually make their way to South Korea, where an estimated 22,000 defectors now live.
“Altogether we were a group of almost fifty”, she says, “but we moved in smaller groups, but altogether only thirty made it to Cambodia and then to South Korea”. Some
of the group died or were arrested on the way, but So Yeon refuses to say more about this, averring that this might expose the network and prevent future escape attempts. “We walked some of the way, and had to hide out as we went”, is all she says about the journey.
In 2012, the North Korean regime plans nationwide celebrations for the centenary of the birth of Kim il Sung, and reports from inside the country suggest that schools are closed as children are being press-ganged into working on new regime vanity projects to showcase the birthday, which will take place as the current ‘Dear Leader’, Kim Jong Il, readies to hand over to to this third son, Kim Jong Eun. The heir apparent’s public appearances to date have sometimes seen him dressed-up as a mini-me Kim il Sung, sentimentality as symbolism, as the centenary approaches and the handover looms.
Meanwhile, as the regime gets ready to party, United Nations official Valerie Amos is visiting Pyongyang, amid concerns that North Korea could face another famine along the lines of the 1990s that killed unknown numbers of North Koreans, likely in the high hundreds of thousands, but estimated in some quarters to be as much as 2 million people. North Korea’s government claims that a bitterly cold winter and summer floods have left the country short of food, and is seeking food aid, backed by a UN appeal for US$200 million worth of assistance.
After holding talks with North Korean officials in Thailand on October 18, over locating remains of U.S. Soldiers killed or missing since the 1950-53 Korean War, the U.S. said that it will meet Pyongyang representatives in Geneva next week, for discussions on North Korea’s nuclear arms.
However, amid conflicting reports on the extent and severity of the latest North Korean food crisis, the U.S. has been attacked by some NGOs for refusing to pony up aid, with agencies and NGOs operating in North Korea saying that nuclear and security issues are clouding U.S. policy on aid – a charge the U.S denies.
Kim Kwang Jin, a former regime official based in Singapore, is one of the highest-profile defectors, who made his escape by taking his family on a flight to Seoul in 2003. He cautioned that “the bigger the aid size is, the higher the risk of redirecting the food to the military”, a concern among western donors who fear that the Pyongyang regime may be exaggerating the crisis, or that regardless of the real severity of the food shortages and malnutrition inside North Korea, it will misuse aid no matter what the needs on the ground. “Any humanitarian or emergency food aid should be in small amount and delivered directly to the wanted recipients”, added Kim Kwang Jin.
However, in a closed, authoritarian country where accurate information is difficult to come by, establishing the ‘facts on the ground’ is a challenge. North Korea-focused news agencies in South Korea – often partly-staffed by defectors who maintain a network of clandestine contacts inside the hermetic state – work at great risk to funnel information and news out of North Korea. However, even these agencies struggle to paint a full picture of the food crisis, but hear regular stories of some resourceful North Koreans who are finding ways to make a living and purchase food
“People know how to use the market and the system of smuggling along the border”, says Eun Kyoung Kwon, of Open Radio for North Korea, based in Seoul
She says that North Koreans working along the border region pay off officials to turn a blind eye to such flagrant breaches of the country’s official communism, with palm-greasing apparently so rife in places that it undermines whatever claims the Pyongyang regime makes about having a socialist economy.
However, the pressures of poverty, oppression and malnutrition will likely mean that thousands more North Koreans will attempt the arduous, dangerous escape from their closed country, to join defectors such as *So Yeon and Kim Kwang Jin. That escape, difficult as it is already, might be getting more troublesome, however. A late September arrest of between 20-35 North Korean defectors working below the radar in China, to help their countrymen and women flee onward to South Korea, threatens to jeopardise the system. Assessing the crackdown, Kim Kwang Jin said that “it is a clear danger which will shrink such activities in many ways”.
*So Yeon s a pseudonym for this defector. She cannot be named for security reasons.Show