March 27, 2005


Glimpse of World Shatters North Koreans' Illusions (HOWARD W. FRENCH , 3/24/05, NY Times)

The Lee sisters are part of a virtually stateless underground population of North Koreans who have crossed into China along the 877-mile border between the countries and live on the lam in this region. International refugee and human rights groups have estimated their numbers at 200,000 and growing.

The exodus of North Koreans to Jilin and Liaoning Provinces began in earnest in the waves of famine that struck North Korea in the mid-1990's, killing as many as two million people.

The refugees pose challenges for China and for North Korea. Chinese officials fear that a flood of North Koreans across their borders would not only pose a huge economic strain on the region, but could eventually stoke a territorial dispute because of historic Korean claims in the region. For North Korea, the refugees' flight to China offers a pressure valve, allowing the poor to earn desperately needed money. But it also allows them a glimpse of the richness of the outside world, and that could be destabilizing.

Some of the refugees want to migrate to other countries, particularly South Korea, which they perceive as being hugely wealthy and hospitable. Others want to disappear amid the two million ethnic Korean Chinese in this border region. But increasingly, the refugees plan to shuttle secretly back and forth between the countries, coming to China to supply their petty commerce back home, to take care of health problems or to see relatives before returning to the hardships of their homeland. All face the perils of a paperless existence that prevents them from easily traveling to a third country, renders their presence in China illegal and exposes those who return home by wading across the Tumen or Yalu Rivers to the risk of drowning, being shot by border guards or facing punishment in labor camps.

One woman who plans to keep shuttling between countries is a 42-year-old military nurse. "I am in China now, and it is just like I had heard - very developed, full of people, with everything you could ever want to buy," she said. "But I have no ID card, no residence permit. I am in a free country, but I am not free."

The woman's unit, which served in the border regions, providing her with a glimpse of the richer world beyond, was dissolved in 1997. She said she had left an 18-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son in North Korea, and would return there, once she had earned money in China and could buy shoes and clothes to take home to sell. "Otherwise, there is just no way to make a living in my country," she said. If the former military nurse had a good idea of what life was like in China, most recent arrivals here, including many who live close to the border, said they had a vague idea of China's striking new wealth.

In interview after interview, they spoke of the huge shift in perspective they experienced upon entering China. "When I lived in Korea, I never thought my leaders were bad," said one woman in her 50's, a farmer who had brought her grown daughter to Yanji recently from her home not far from the other side of the border for treatment of an intestinal ailment. "When I got here, I learned that Chinese can travel wherever they want in the world as long as they have the money. I learned that South Korea is far richer, even than China."

"If we are so poor," she continued, "it must be because of Kim Jong Il's mistakes," she said referring to North Korea's leader.

If they think China is free they're in for some really pleasant surprises in the future. But, in the meantime, we should be using our ability to further destabilize North Korea, and thereby China itself, as a weapon against the PRC.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 27, 2005 7:19 PM

How are they going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Changchun?

Posted by: Peter B at March 28, 2005 6:45 AM
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