North Korea’s state of impoverishment has spawned a steadily increasing influx of refugees into South Korea, from about ten a year in the early ’90s to 1,894 in 2004 (and a 45.7 percent increase from 2003), according to the Korean Ministry of Unification, a government agency that promotes peace between the two Koreas. Currently, the ministry puts the number of North Koreans living in South Korea at 6,000. Estimates of the number in China vary widely from 60,000 to 200,000. The number slogging their way out of North Korea is unknown, but activists say what was once a trickle has in recent years become a flood. In spite of the numbers, the road to Seoul has not gotten any easier.

Tim Peters, who is head of Helping Hands Korea, an organization that helps North Koreans in crisis, and a Christian activist who has testified on the refugee issue before Congress, said sources tell him the number of North Koreans in China could be as high as 400,000. “Sometimes repatriations (from China back to North Korea) can be 400 a week.”

Accordingly, the Chinese have also expanded by two-fold a holding facility by the border to house more than 800 people, he said.

The massive military buildup along the DMZ – the line separating the two Koreas – makes direct travel to South Korea impossible. So immigrants use the Tumen River into China, which can be walked across in winter and waded in the fall. Insiders say getting into China is not terribly difficult. North Korean border guards are said to be less than vigilant. It’s getting out that is treacherous.

Northerners in China are often snared in deportation sweeps that activists decry as a clear violation of the 1951 Geneva Convention, to which China is signatory. Once repatriated, North Koreans are brutally interrogated, often interned in camps and could even be executed as punishment for leaving the dictatorial North.

Graphic video imprint

Even while the tide of emigrants increases, activists say the regime of Kim Jung-Il has been cracking down in recent years. A film of a kangaroo trial for a group of North Koreans caught leaving the country was smuggled out of the Hermit Kingdom in 2005 and broadcast around the world.

Less than 30 minutes after the trial begins, two of the eleven defendants are publicly executed. The defendants are accused of human trafficking for taking North Koreans across the border into China.

Some North Koreans spend years on the run in China, moving between a series of safe houses set up by missionaries, awaiting an opportune moment to try to make it to South Korea.

Many are smuggled between Myanmar and Laos along the Mekong River and others through Vietnam.

The goal is to make it to Thailand, where refugees have typically been deported to South Korea. Once there, Northerners spend two months at Hanawon, a facility that seeks to reverse years of brainwashing.

Stories about internment camps – where North Koreans often end up if caught outside the country – have emerged in recent years. These short-term forced labor camps, the do-jip-kyul-so (provincial detention centers) and ro-dong-dan-ryeon-dae (labor-training centers), are characterized by “below-subsistence-level food rations and very high levels of deaths in detention,” according to the Web site of the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (USCHRNK), a research and advocacy group.

The USCHRNK’s Web site says much is known about the North’s internment practices from the testimony of defectors who were repatriated, interned and left the country a second or even third time. Interrogators’ questions followed similar patters: Did you have any contact with Christians? Did you have any contact with South Koreans? Were you trying to go to South Korea? Most fear execution for answering yes to these questions.

USCHRNK describes on its Web site its research findings:

“(Repatriated North Korean) denials were not considered credible by their interrogators, who attempted to starve and beat admissions out of the detainees. Some of the former prisoners interviewed for this report stuck to their denials; others, broken by hunger and torture, admitted that they had met South Koreans or gone to a Christian church service. One interviewee said she was in such pain that she begged her jailers to kill her to end her suffering.”

When Dong Seok Kim, who is now a student in Seoul (see main story), was repatriated after sneaking into China, answered yes to interrogators’ questions about whether he had converted to Christianity, his “yes” answer set off an ordeal of agonizing torture. At one point he was hung upside down and had large quantities of hot pepper sauce forced down his throat, and the beatings he endured left him permanently scarred.

Women refugees risk being sold into forced marriages to Chinese farmers, often by the same brokers who took them to China. The going rate for a North Korean virgin in China was $760-$2000 around a year or two ago, according to Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, a Japan-based non-governmental organization.

One such case is that of Kim Chun Hwa, a 17-year-old girl who was sold as a “bride” to a Chinese man and regularly raped by the man’s brother. Unable to go to the police for fear of repatriation, her mistreatment was a regular occurrence until she escaped, according to Life Funds. She is now waiting in an underground shelter in China while Life Funds is preparing a rescue team to take her to a third country.

Crackdown on activists

The road to Seoul can be a thorny one as well for the activists smuggling North Korean refugees through China’s clandestine underground network of safe houses and border crossings. Choi Yong-hun, a South Korean businessman in China, was released in November 2006 from a four-year stint in a Chinese prison for attempting to transport by boat several refugees from China to South Korea. Choi said he was brutally beaten and denied asthma and hypertension medications sent by his wife.

In China’s efforts to portray itself as a stable place for investment, activists say it is increasing its vigilance against North Korean refugees in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Fearing a less-than-harsh stance toward refugees could trigger a major outpouring of hungry North Koreans and spark a major crisis, experts say China wants to send a clear message to would-be immigrants: Don’t come here.

China, with major income disparities and an estimated 80,000 civil disturbances and riots in 2006, does not need any more social ills to distract from its laser-like focus on the economy. But activists fault the economic giant with not allowing international agencies to enter and deal with the problem.

Kook-han Moon, who is banned from China for his advocacy of human rights for North Koreans there, says China has become stricter in cracking down on activists. This started in 2003, he says, when the refugee issue began to receive international attention.

There is a large concentration of North Korean refugees around the area of China bordering North Korea, which is comprised mostly of ethnically-Korean Chinese. In the past, defectors could hide among the local Korean-speaking population, but recently stricter policing of the area has increased the risk, according to Life Funds. Trouble may also come in the form of ethnic Koreans looking to make a fast buck (sometimes just a few dollars) for turning in an illegal alien.

Moon faults South Korea’s government for not doing more to help North Korean refugees and South Korean activists in China. “It’s only when it gets in newspapers that South Korea helps,” he said.