Image: North Korean Soldier
A North Korean soldier, left, watches his counterpart from South Korea at the border village of Panmunjom on Wednesday.
By
Special to msnbc.com

In mid-January, China captured 78 North Korean refugees as they plotted to board boats bound for Japan and South Korea. Amid major crackdowns by both Beijing and Pyongyang, the unhappy fate of those arrested is clear.

“If it is found that they were trying to go to South Korea, they get anywhere from 10 years to execution after they are sent back to North Korea,” said Lim Young Sun, a former North Korean army officer who fled the North 10 years ago. “The mastermind of the operation will surely be executed.”

While politicians and diplomats from Washington to Seoul are fixated on the threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear programs, the arrest of the refugees was a reminder of the hunger and suffering endured by millions of North Koreans as they face another long, lean winter. The energy outlook is worsening since Washington announced a halt of fuel oil shipments, punishment for Pyongyang’s alleged nuclear weapons development. On the ground level, the choices are stark — stay and suffer or flee the country, risking arrest, torture, banishment to a remote region and possible execution.

“The degree of punishment has become more severe,” said Lim, director of investigations for the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees, one of several organizations here dedicated to helping the refugees. “Executions in public have decreased, but within labor camps it has increased. The situation especially within those camps is getting much worse.”

The worsening plight of the vast majority of North Korea’s 22 million people — and the publicity surrounding their efforts to escape — has prompted the regime to suppress them more tightly while it haggles with the international community over its nuclear weapons program. In its zeal to increase its control, North Korea counts on cooperation from neighboring China, where authorities are searching the cities and countryside for as many as 300,000 who have slipped across the border.

“My colleagues in Pyongyang told me the North Korean authorities in the Northeast are cracking down more severely than ever,” said Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who has been crusading for human rights for North Koreans after witnessing abuses first-hand during nearly a year and a half in North Korea. “More and more high-ranking officials are in a difficult situation,” Vollertsen said. “The food situation is getting worse. There are more and more power failures. They don’t get any regular food supply in the countryside. They don’t have any heating.”

Increasingly concerned about a coup d’etat that most analysts still believe is only a remote possibility, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has authorized “more and more security, more and more control stations,” said Vollertsen. “There are soldiers all over the place.”

Higher security in China
The increased security in North Korea has its mirror image in China, across the Yalu and Tumen rivers, which constitute the border. Refugees report increases in the number of Chinese policemen in towns along the borders and say North Korean police are also seen working with the Chinese to round up refugees. There are even reports of refugee detention centers near Yanji, about 30 miles from the border, in the predominantly Korean-Chinese region of Yangbian.

“They have definitely decided if possible to abolish refugees in China,” said Lee Ho Tack, who runs a refugee organization here. “They are conducting an operation like a war against refugees. They are cracking down so they won’t find any place to hide in China.”

The Chinese and North Koreans authorities may be waging an uphill battle as North Korea’s economic hardship deepens. The ultimate nightmare for China is that thousands of North Koreans will begin showing up in coastal towns and villages, overwhelming policing efforts. While many would be bound for South Korea, many others would attempt to blend into China’s Korean community, raising the numbers of people vying for scarce jobs and adding to the atmosphere of defiance among Chinese-Koreans, long restive under Beijing’s control.

Exactly how many Korea refugees there are in China is not known since most evade the radar, doing odd jobs to survive. However, the flow to the South peaked last year.

All told, 1,141 North Koreans made their way to South Korea in 2002, nearly double the 583 who managed to reach the South in 2001 — mostly through China but a few through Russia and then a third country. So far 2,889 North Koreans have made it to the South, a fraction of those who would rush for the border if they were free to move.

Economic motivation
Economic needs are the primary motivation. At the end of the Korean War nearly half a century ago, incomes in the North were actually higher than in the South. Since then, average income and living standards have been falling in inverse proportion to their rise in South Korea. Now, according to CIA estimates, the average North Korean exists on roughly $1,000 a year, compared with $18,000 a year for South Koreans.

Not unexpectedly, one of the greatest fears of North Korean authorities is that those who have ventured to China or Russia to earn money and then returned will have a subversive effect. “I went to Russia to work in the forest cutting trees and got some idea about the outside world,” said one refugee who came here last year. “A police spy heard me asking why life was so much better there than in our country even though they told us it was a ‘socialist paradise.’”

The refugee, talking anonymously for fear of retribution against the family he left behind, fled across the Yalu river into China after the police warned him he might be imprisoned for voicing such complaints.

Beginning of a crackdown?
Some refugee workers trace the start of the crackdown on both sides of the border to Dec. 5, when two pastors, the Rev. Choi Bong Il and the Rev. John Daniel Choi, from North Carolina, were tried on charges of “human trafficking” in refugees. In addition, John Daniel Choi was charged with statutory rape of refugee girls under the age of 18.

“We haven’t heard about sentencing or judgment,” said Douglas Shin, a refugee worker. The case marked the beginning of what the North Korean regime has said is a 100-day battle to halt the flow of refugees.

“They opened the campaign to keep the back door blocked while the crisis with Washington is going on,” said Shin. “Because they have embarked on a 100-day battle, there is no more leniency, and there are more summary executions for quick disposal of people. Since the North doesn’t have the facilities to handle them all, we have reports they are left in Chinese detention centers, where they treat them like dirt.”

China remains impervious to demands that North Korean refugees be classified as just that, refugees, eligible for asylum in China and elsewhere.

Kim Sang Chul, an attorney who is secretary-general of the Commission to Help North Korean Refugees, led a campaign two years ago to collect 11.8 million signatures of people asking the United Nations to view all the North Koreans who had made it into China as refugees, not illegal migrants. He got no response beyond polite thanks for his time and effort.

Few succeed at embassy dash
The only way refugees in China have consistently managed to escape arrest and return to North Korea has been by making a dash for the safety of foreign embassies and consulates and international facilities outside the reach of Chinese police in Beijing and other major cities. Since a family of seven received asylum in the Beijing office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in June 2001, nearly 200 people have successfully used that route.

That number, however, is minuscule compared with the total for all the refugees, so the strategy, initially encouraged by Vollertsen, may have been a failure. And the dream of a boatlift of North Korean refugees, while it may come true someday, may also have only encouraged the Chinese to pursue refugees more aggressively than before.

“The Chinese government and the Communist Party of China do not like intervention by foreign powers,” said Kim Sang Chul. “Therefore, they arrest as many as they can.”

The arrest of the 78 who had planned to leave China by boat may get a degree of attention that China had hoped to avoid. Among the 78 are two South Korean citizens, one of them a businessman who wanted to help the refugees, the other a free-lance photographer, Seok Jae Hyun.

The Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club, appealing to Chinese authorities for Seok’s release, called his detention “an infringement on his rights and freedom as a journalist.”

Even if Seok is eventually freed, however, the others will probably be sent back to North Korea. Refugees who were picked up in China just trying to make a living are likely to get six months’ imprisonment in North Korea, but there is no crime worse than wanting to defect to South Korea.

“It is the severest crime,” said one of the refugees who escaped last year through a foreign embassy in Beijing and did not want his name used. “Surely they will be executed. Or even if they are not shot, they will be sent to a political prison, and they will have to suffer there all the rest of their lifetimes, and they will die there.”

MSNBC.com contributor Don Kirk is based in Seoul, South Korea.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments