GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 445 March 7, 2012

[“Good Friends” aims to help the North Korean people from a humanistic point of view and publishes “North Korea Today” describing the way the North Korean people live as accurately as possible. We at Good Friends also hope to be a bridge between the North Korean people and the world.]
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[Intro] Revisiting the Issue of North Korean Refugees
Escaping amidst Extremely Strict Border Control
Hike on the Number of Illegal Border-crossers in Captivity
State of Refugees Just Like the Arduous March
A Mother and Her Son Knocking on the Door in the Middle of Night
Soohyang, a North Korean Female Refugee in China
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[Intro] Revisiting the Issue of North Korean Refugees
In this issue, we have a story about a North Korean female refugee who entered a Korean-Chinese’ house and devoured 20 eggs at once. Twelve years ago, we published almost identical stories entitled “People who crossed the Tumen River.” At that time, we met 28,000 people in 2,479 villages across North-East China who fled from North Korea in search of food. We called them ‘food refugees.’ They can be labeled with different names depending on how one sees them; illegal border-crossers, traitors to their country, or refugees seeking freedom. Seen with a political angle, they can be perceived very differently by each stakeholder, and countries will only reconfirm their different stances. However, from a pure humanitarian point of view, they are only needy people whom all countries should come together to help.

• The North Korean and Chinese government should ease their border control between the two countries so that the food refugees can move freely searching for food for their survival until the North Korean food situation is improved.
• The North Korean authorities should not punish the food refugees who either forcefully or voluntarily return to North Korea.
• The Chinese government should stop searching, arresting, and repatriating the food refugees to North Korea.
• South Korea should provide humanitarian aid such as food and medicine to North Korea to prevent any further increase in the number of refugees.
• Media should refrain from covering North Korea refugee issues for the purpose of criticizing North Korea or China.

These are the action items Good Friends proposed 12 years ago when it released its report on the status of food refugees. It is lamentable that we have to reissue the same recommendations after 12 years have passed.


Escaping amidst Extremely Strict Border Control
Even amidst reinforced border control, there are people still making attempts to escape North Korea. Last February 17, a family of five disappeared from Musan in North Hamgyong Province. The security guards shut the border area and searched for them in vain. People in the neighborhood unit are talking to each other that the security guards must have missed them given that there has been no news for more than a week. If the family was caught, it certainly would have been announced during the neighborhood unit meeting to threat the general public with a demonstration of the end of traitors who cross the borders. However, there has not been a single word of the arrest of the family thus far.

On February 22, a 31-year-old farmer was caught in Onsung while crossing the border. He was a wanted criminal since he was involved with drug trafficking. Knowing that he would never get away this time, he decided to cross the Tuman River while the security check was loosened for a moment.

On that same day, Lee Kyung-ok (alias) was caught on the Chinese side of the border after crossing the border. North Korean police station in charge of the region provided her profile to the Chinese authority and requested to send her back to North Korea.

On February 23, two women were caught in Hoeryong while attempting to cross the river toward Mangyang. They had been imprisoned for crossing the border before and got recently released during the time of great amnesty in February. They are expected to be punished harshly because they tried to cross the border again soon after they were pardoned.

The recent increase in the number of North Koreans crossing the border is because the food situation has been getting worse to the extent that people say it is worse than that of the Arduous March. They say that the number will not drop no matter how strong the border control would get, unless the food situation improves.


Hike on the Number of Illegal Border-crossers in Captivity
There has been an increase in the number of people trying to cross the border by themselves, without any help from brokers or backdoor deals with the border patrols. Due to enhanced border control regulations in recent years, it has been rare to see anyone dared to cross the border without bribing border patrols or Chinese officials. However, as the food situation got worsened, unassisted border river crossing cases have increased.

Some of them get caught while crossing the border, while others manage to make it to the other side of the border and then get caught by the Chinese police because they have nowhere to go and get reported by local residents. Throughout the Chinese side of the border such as Domun (Tumen), Ryongjung (Longjing), and Jangbaek (Changbai), it has become commonplace to see North Koreans entering private houses in the middle of the night and begging for food only to get arrested by the authorities. Chinese police officers say those North Koreans are in a terrible condition at the time of arrest, so frail that they could collapse at any second.


State of Refugees Just Like the Arduous March
Tumen, a city in China’s Jilin Province, was surrounded by darkness on the night of February 19th. The silence of the night was broken by a sudden barking of dogs that did not stop. Hwang, a town resident, turned on the light of her front yard and peered outside only to find a dark object on the ground - a human body. Hwang quickly woke her husband and carried the body inside the house.

After laying the person in front of the kiln, they were able to see the face of the collapsed stranger. It was a short woman, with a face full of wrinkles, and only skin on her bones. Her hair was tangled like vines and covered in dirt. The couple covered the woman in a cotton-wool comforter and placed a pillow under her head. After readjusting herself and finding a comfortable position, she fell asleep. After about an hour of sleeping soundly in the warm room, color returned to the woman’s face and she asked the Hwang’s for some water and food. By the time they helped her sit up, the wife had already prepared a cup of warm water along with a plate full of kimchi, rice, fermented soybean soup with pork, and hard-boiled eggs.

The woman then started devour the food, not even stopping to take the couple’s advice to eat slowly. She ate 20 hard-boiled eggs, two bowls of rice, and two bowls of soup in one sitting and shocked the Hwang’s with her appetite. The Hwang’s had witnessed something like this 15 years ago with a different North Korean refugee during the Arduous March when there was a mass exodus of refugees crossing the Tumen River.

The Hwang’s then turned their attention to the refugee’s hygiene. When they took off her coat, they found shreds of unrecognizable clothing with a dirt covered body and foul odor. The water used to wash her became dirty and dark quickly. After the Hwang’s covered her in a clean wool sweater, cotton pants, and white socks, she looked like a totally different person. The refugee said this was the first time in her life to eat a delicious meal and wear warm, comfortable clothing. She was from Onsung, the city across the river. Her husband had died three weeks ago and she did not know the whereabouts of her two daughters, but suspected they had crossed into China. It was so hard for her to live alone, so she had searched far and near for anyone for help, but because everyone was having difficulties financially, no one offered help.

She sold all of her household items and eventually even her home, leaving her homeless and nowhere to go. She said she was determined to see her two daughters again no matter what, and thus began this journey. The refugee could not stop crying while telling her story. How will she able to find her two children in this massive country?


A Mother and Her Son Knocking on the Door in the Middle of Night
On February 22nd, as a dog barked loudly in the middle of the night, Mr. Park, an aged farmer living in a village in Jangbaek (Changbai) district, Jilin Province in China opened the door and found two human-shaped shadows under the moonlight.

He asked who they were and got the answer with a shaky voice from a woman that they were from North Korea. She implored the farmer to open the door and help her and her son. Mr. Park locked the door and told them to find another house since he could be fined and arrested for helping North Koreans. Begging to let them stay only one night at Mr. Park’s house, however, the mother and her son kept knocking on the door and said that they did not have any relatives and they were cold and starved.

In spite of the desperate plea, Mr. Park justified his rejection because he remembered the time when he helped a North Korean in the past. The man stole his possession and money and ran away. He also thought about the legal punishments such as fines and an interrogation from the Chinese police, not worth to go through at his old age. Furthermore, he recently heard that a Chinese was fined with 2,000 yuan for helping North Koreans hide. The Public Security Officers announced that people who report North Korean border crossers will be rewarded with 200 yuan. However, Mr. Park did not want to report the mother and the son because he did not want to ruin their lives although he could not help them. He warned the mother and the son that they should be grateful about him for not reporting them; then he locked the door tightly, turned off the TV, and went to bed. He could hear the North Koreans knocking on his door for a few more minutes and then silence.

As he lied down, he got worried if they might die of cold in front of his house. Although he wanted to check if they were gone, he refrained himself from doing so in fear of facing them which would make him emotionally vulnerable. A few moments later, he heard lots of noise from a place near his house. He could see flashlights from every direction and heard men shouting, a woman and a child crying.

As soon as he heard a car leaving, the world went silent. He went outside and saw some villagers who got out of bed to watch the commotion. They talked to each other that it seemed just like the late 1990s when North Koreans without any means to get around desperately cross the border to China and got arrested. Mr. Park tried to suppress his guilt and turned back to his house.


Soohyang, a North Korean Female Refugee in China
Soohyang is from Hamheung; she crossed the river to China 15 years ago. When she lost all her family and became alone during the Arduous March, she heard from someone that she would be able to make a living if she goes to China, so she crossed the Tumen River along with other people. When she entered the village in shape of a crazy woman with ragged clothes and bare feet, a good-hearted Korean-Chinese woman took her in. She never had heaping bowls of white rice and soup as much as that time. It was the amount that she could never finish these days even if she was asked to do so, but she remembers how she stuffed down the food at that time. For over a week, she ate, slept, woke up, ate and slept again, and again.

She met her current husband and started a family without a wedding ceremony. Her father-in-law passed away a long time ago, and she takes care of her mother-in-law who is now over 70 years old and cannot move after a stroke. Her husband is a disabled person suffering from polio and is on a wheelchair. Soohyang is thankful every day for being able to stay safe and well even in such situation. She is shorter than 150 centimeters but works so hard that she has a very good reputation among the villagers. Her daily wage after helping others’ farm work is about 50 yuan. The Korean-Chinese get paid 100 yuan or 150 yuan whereas Soohyang gets paid only less than 50 yuan after doing the same work, but she says that the villagers are good to her. She says that many villagers try to give her more by adding a dozen eggs, and they helped her to get away with several crises when the Public Security Officers stormed into the village. The local Public Security Officers overlook Soohyang’s family these days because her husband is disabled, but other North Korean women in the village got arrested and expatriated, or escaped to other villages. There used to be more than 20 North Korean women in the village, but few of them are left these days, according to her. Among the children who were born between a Korean-Chinese father and a North Korean refugee mother, many do not even remember their mother’s face. She is now a mother who raises a 10-year-old son, and says that she is so thankful because she can see her child every day.

Her son, Cheon-il, is healthy because he is not picky and eats well. He is also a pleasant boy with a lot of friends and does well in school, which she is always thankful for. However, she is worried about his education these days. There was an elementary school in the village where she managed to send her child. This year the school was closed, and her son needs to go to a larger city to continue his education. Soohyang’s wage combined with the government’s subsidy for low-income families still cannot cover the cost of his education. “Thanks to the (Chinese) government’s special consideration for us, my son is officially registered, but my status is still that of an illegal defector. If my status problem is resolved, we could move out to a city. Then I would find a job as a laborer in a restaurant there and be able to support my son for his education. I am so sorry to my son for being a mother like this…” Soohyang could not finish her words, as tears welled up in her eyes.

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