N. Korean defectors: never-ending sorrow
As a resident of Washington, I constantly hear the never-ending sad stories from the China-North Korea border. The Chinese government will return some 30 defectors to North Korea. They face life-long imprisonment or execution at the hands of a kangaroo court. The Tumen River forming the China-North Korea border is not deep and expansive except for the summer season when it floods.
Many of them attempted to go to South Korea after crossing the river via the tropical jungle on the China-Laos border, the Laos-Vietnam border or crossing the Mekong River to reach Thailand. Each border is patrolled by soldiers, policemen and plainclothes officers. Most dangerous is the China-North Korea border.
Beijing and Pyongyang are not friendly to those who seek food and freedom. The North Korean regime considers them traitors. Chinese border security forces always attempt to find, arrest, interrogate and finally return them to the North. They are escapees from hunger and starvation. There is small room to escape and runaway from North Korea, because the shallow and narrow river is the border. Sometimes, they buy the “escape’’; sometimes, they risk their own lives.
A long journey by train or bus for 18 hours from China to Laos is not just 18 hours for the illegal travelers. It could be perceived as 180 hours or more. Some of them choose the secret route to Mongolia and to Russia. Any route is dangerous. Thrill and suspense are words of luxury to them. The 007 series of movies are rather romantic fiction.
The Mission Impossible series is fictional adventure stories. Their journeys are not fictional ― they are bloody and real life risking adventures. They face the dangers of arrest or loss of life. They can be shot at any moment. Some fail to cross the Tumen River; and some are arrested in their Manchuria hideouts before their long adventure to Laos.
Once they arrive safely in Thailand, they seek political asylum to go to South Korea. Seoul accepts them as its fellow citizens after a short period of training and readjustment. They receive funding to start a new life.
There are also North Korean defectors in Siberia. Lumberjacks there are also seeking freedom and food, and escape from their slave labor contracts. They are rarely paid by the North Korean government. They escape from the Siberian lumber mills and wander around far distant cities in Russia, from Vladivostok and Khabarovsk to Moscow. They want to go to South Korea, the United States or Europe.
Some have succeeded in the crossing. Some have been captured for repatriation to the North. Then, they were lifelong prisoners. Some escaped again from prison. Some of the runways were killed on the spot. Their chance of escape is practically nil, but the hope of escape prevails over the fear of death in prison. Bribing the party cadres can make their escape possible.
There are no such things as human rights in North Korea. There is no due process of law. There is no defense lawyer. The North’s regime of three generational dictators commits crimes against humanity. Brokers have connections with the local communist party chiefs. They have networks for selling North Korean women, young and old, with different price tags. Young women in their 20s are sold for $5,000; old women in their 30s are sold for $3,000.
Human trafficking is a serious crime. Those who cross the border are often sold to either poor, single Chinese farmers or to red light districts. Even after their settlement in the farm, they face arrest. Bribes can save their lives temporarily. They are constantly under stress to possible exposure to the Chinese police and security forces. Chinese “husbands” are helpless in this situation. From such tragic arrangements of Chinese men and North Korean women, babies are born. The children can neither get Chinese nor North Korean citizenship ― they have become children of no nation.
Lately, North Koreans hiding in Chinese cities and towns used the sea between China and Korea, to beat the lengthy and dangerous land transportation checkpoints. However, the relentless stormy sea is waiting for them.
First of all, they must find a boat from the Chinese coast. They need paid help for the adventurous trip into international waters while riding a boat arranged by South Korean Christian missionary groups. The sea is not always peaceful. Many may not survive the stormy sea at night, and are buried at sea. Christian-missionary groups raise funds to pay brokers and seamen for the defectors. They also rescue women from trafficking in person.
Any land or sea route is not at all easy. All face and confront life-or-death situations. Their money sometimes went to the wrong or bad brokers. Some report their hideouts and attempted escape routes to the Chinese police. Some brokers are agents for North Korea or China. Some are double agents. That is why many attempted defectors are captured and forced to return to the North.
The United Nations must appeal to China to not return defectors to the North and help them avoid execution. North Korean refugees should be protected by the U.N. Charter. We should do something to bring them to South Korea or the free world.
The writer is a retired college professor, poet and writer.