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North Korea : survival means slavery

Lindsey Hilsum

ICC Note: Most people in North Korea would rather risk death then stay in North Korea and face torture, starvation, and disease.

2/22/07 North Korea For full story….(New Statesman) The Tumen River, which divides China from North Korea , was frozen solid. We peered across to the North Korean side: the border guards’ wooden huts emitted no smoke, suggesting that they were unheated. Outside, it was -16° Celsius. A wolf-like dog scampered along the river, leaving pad-prints in the snow. There were human footprints, too – evidence of a patrol, maybe, or of refugees who had fled at night, so desperate to leave North Korea that they would risk freezing to death or being shot.

The Chinese government regards the North Koreans not as refugees needing help, but as illegal aliens. It will not allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to the border area, and limits the number of South Korean diplomats in the region, for fear they will encourage North Koreans to seek asylum. “The Chinese government flat-out refuses to recognise North Koreans as refugees,” says Ron Redmond, chief spokesman for UNHCR. “But of course we help them; we’ve helped North Koreans reach South Korea . Nobody knows how many refugees there are: estimates have ranged from 30,000 to 300,000. ” In 2005 an American Christian pastor, Philip Buck, was arrested in Yanji and held for 18 months on charges of “people smuggling”. He was part of the ” Seoul train” that takes refugees out of North Korea and China through Mongolia and Thailand to safety.

The Chinese authorities detain North Koreans in a monolithic yellow concrete block with small windows staring out across the river from a hilltop just outside Tumen. Every few weeks they load detainees into vans and take them across the bridge, where they are handed over to the border guards under a portrait of North Korea’s “President for Eternity”, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.

In the late 1990s, hunger in North Korea became so acute that the country appealed for food aid and the UN World Food Programme stepped in. It is estimated that roughly two million people died. Now China and South Korea donate food, most of which is believed to reach the military and the elite in Pyongyang , while the WFP continues a smaller programme. “We have identified 1.9 million people dependent on food aid in North Korea ,” says Robin Lodge, a WFP spokesman. “At present we are feeding 740,000. Our funding is such that we believe we can continue feeding them until June this year.”

In an anonymous block of flats in the mean little town of Huanqing , we met a family – mother, father, teenage son and daughter – that had been caught trying to take food to relatives back home. A Chinese Christian who would give his name only as “Mr Kim” took us to the flat which served as their refuge and their prison. “We’re fine here, except we dare not go out,” said the mother. She said Mr Kim brought them food and other necessities.

For five years the family had lived as a group of itinerant beggars, wandering around North Korea looking for food, because food distribution at the coal mine where the father had worked was inadequate. Their memory of dates and details was vague, but they said they crossed over into China in 2005. “For almost a year we lived in a tent in the mountains,” said the father. They found the Christian network and converted. Then they began to worry about relatives back home, so they decided to join other Christians taking food back across the border.

Within days they were caught. Under interrogation, their friends confessed to being Christians and were jailed as political prisoners. The women were released and the father managed to resist confession, but the son was transferred back to their home town of Gosang .

“I was detained for another 20 days. There were 150 people in a cell 150 square metres large,” he said. “Men were kept in the cell and women in the corridor.” They were fed, but that was not enough. “Many prisoners got skin diseases,” he said. “There was no medicine, and I saw many dead people in the cell.”

It was not clear why he had been released, nor how the family had been reunited in China . Now Mr Kim was hoping to smuggle all four of them to Beijing and eventually to South Korea . When asked about relatives back home, mother and daughter started to cry. Although UN sanctions imposed after North Korea ‘s nuclear test last year target luxury goods, Mr Kim’s concern was that further economic pressure could send starvation levels back to those of the late 1990s. “The other day, I met some North Koreans who have only just arrived,” he said. “They are ready for another economic crisis. There will be a second Hardship Long March this year.”

In the past few years the North Korean economy has been prised open and increasing numbers of Chinese traders are doing business in Pyongyang , but the Chinese fear that if Japan and the US move too harshly against North Korea over its nuclear programme, the regime will become unstable and millions will surge across the border. “If more refugees flee to China , the Chinese government will send them back,” said Mr Kim. “They won’t change their policies.”

On the outskirts of the village, we tramped through the snow to meet a family of three that had arrived last spring and had been living in the mountains, working in exchange for food on a farm where they catch and kill toads for traditional medicine. The parents told a now familiar story: their son had died of starvation last year, so they decided to come to China with their remaining child, a 13-year-old girl. As we talked, she played with a puppy – her only entertainment, because she cannot go to school in China .

No one knows how many other children like her are hiding in the villages and the mountains of north-eastern China , condemned to live as permanent fugitives for the crime of trying to survive.