The Decision to Flee
One member of a military division decided in 1995 that if he could flee to South Korea, he would have the opportunity to clear his name of plotting to implicate his superiors in a theft.12 Two men we interviewed had fled directly from different administrative detention camps in 1998 where they had been held because they were related to people considered to be serious criminals.13
On the other hand, getting food was the simple motivation of a young man who left in 1997 after he had overheard people discussing the situation in China.14 A young woman decided to go to China with her uncle in 1998 in order to aid her father, who had fallen into serious debt after taking a loan to buy medicine for her dying mother.15
Often, economic motivations were intertwined with a background of political discrimination. Two different women fled to China to survive the famine, both in 1998, after each of their families had been expelled from Pyongyang for political reasons.16 One young man and his family left in 1999 because he could not enter medical school or a teaching college because of family background. This young man's family had relatives abroad, who they expected to help and who did help expedite their transit to South Korea.17 An older man, who left in 1998, sought economic help from his relatives in China. But his troubles began in 1977, when his family was exiled from Pyongyang and sent to live in an administrative camp for five years because of his father's perceived disloyalty.18
Whatever the initial reasons, most of those we interviewed described the decision as a moment of acute crisis, as they were aware of the tremendous risks to themselves and their families the political act of leaving the country entailed. Despite the many hardships and abuses refugees had suffered, their description of the act of crossing the Tumen River was often the most emotionally fraught point of our interviews. Many found it a terrifying, near-death experience, and to all it represented a decisive moment of separation when they crossed not only a national border, but the border between being a citizen and a criminal, or even a traitor. A man whose family transited to South Korea in a matter of months via a well-worn route prepared by heavy bribes was one of the few to describe the experience calmly. "The river was frozen, so it was easy. Everyone knows you can cross if you pay."19 Those who crossed without assistance, however, found it traumatic. "It was very dangerous...because the water was running high. I thought I was going to die on my way to China."20 "The river was not frozen, even in winter, because of wastewater from a Chinese factory. The water was chest-high. If I crossed the river, I would reach China, so I endured the coldness, even though it was as painful as cutting my flesh with a knife."21
North Korea and China share two rivers as their border: the Yalu River, which originates from Mt. Paektu and flows southwest between cities in both North Korea and China until it reaches the Yellow Sea, and the Tumen River, which begins at the same mountain and flows towards the northeast, finally reaching the East Sea or Sea of Japan (see map, Appendix A).
The psychological and political border that the Tumen River represented came across graphically in certain testimonies. One woman, returning to North Korea from China, where she had become a Christian, to bring her daughter back with her, broke down several times as she related the ordeal:
One young man, whose family had served time in a labor camp in North Korea, escaped to Musan and stayed there four months, trying to contact relatives across the border in China. When word finally came from them, he set out.
At the Mercy of Strangers
Few refugees speak Chinese, and most rely on the assistance of ethnic Korean residents of China. There has been a Korean population in the Yanbian border region for centuries, supplemented at various points in more recent history such as the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula and the Korean War, and many North Koreans have relatives across the border. At the outset of the mass exodus of the 1990s, many Korean-Chinese were very sympathetic to North Korean escapees, recalling that North Korea had sheltered Korean Chinese during the famine brought on by the Great Leap Forward (1958-61). But sympathies have been tempered by the increasingly stringent sanctions enforced by the Chinese government to stem the flow.
Mr. Kim J. explained that it took two weeks just to get to the Tumen border area from his home in South Pyong An province. Because of his "bad" family background, he could not obtain a pass from the Social Safety Bureau to travel there legally, so his family took a train as close as they could and walked the rest of the remaining 200 kilometers to the river and crossed from Musan to Hwaryong, a small village. They continued walking, hungry and footsore, following the sound of the river. There they met some Korean-Chinese people fishing and asked if they would give them just one meal at their home.
Refugees told us of the precautions they took in finding shelter. It was safer (and more expensive) to live on the upper floors of buildings, and to avoid houses with a shared outhouse or outhouse near other dwellings. Most people stayed indoors all day, crowded into small rooms for months at a time, latching the door from the inside when the legal residents left for work. One man related:
In addition to exacting high rent for rooms, some who shelter North Koreans make direct demands for pay-offs.27 One man related, "Our landlord once threatened our uncle [in South Korea] to give some more money or `I'll report these people,'" and charged them a "departure" fee when they finally moved on.28 A different man escaped in 1998 from a North Korean administrative detention camp and crossed the Tumen River with the help of a woman who placed him in the house of a Chinese official in Yanji. But he left the official's house when the man asked for 100 million South Korean won in payment [U.S.$80,000]. He headed to Musan, and with money his brother sent, he bought a fishing boat and arranged for the sellers to guide him to the high sea. But once afloat, "the people who sold this ship to me tied my hands and threw me into the water, saying that I had to give them more money or they'd let me drown. I promised them more money and we went back to San Dung."29
Using North Koreans as low-paid or unpaid labor was also common. One young man worked as a logger for four years without pay and without complaint for the Korean-Chinese household that sheltered him, leaving only when public security officers came looking for him.30 Another man, who worked as a logger in the mountainous area, cut timber in exchange for rice. He related that some Chinese also working in the area "came to think they didn't have to work so hard if they could use me to traffic North Korean women on their behalf." So they abducted him, keeping him in a storage room in Yanbian. "They stripped me of my clothes, and five or six of them started to beat me. They would beat me, and then treat me nicely, for example, taking me to a nice restaurant, to try to convince me." He agreed to cooperate with them, and escaped the next day.31
Just as North Koreans are often at the mercy of strangers in China, so too do they often depend on the kindness of strangers. Religious and humanitarian workers provide the only assistance in finding housing, support, education, and health care for those who cannot pay on their own or depend on relations. Some of these groups organize `safe houses' and risky underground railroads out of China. Other activists plan the highly publicized efforts to scale embassy walls for asylum, calling the media in to record the event. But not all encourage migration; we encountered religious workers who tried to urge North Koreans to return to their home as well by giving them a more realistic view of the challenges of resettling in South Korea.
Sexual Slavery and Trafficking in Women
The trade in sexual relations is complex, spanning a wide range of situations. There are many reports of outright sexual slavery, where women are duped or abducted to be sold to men. There are also cases where North Korean women have gone to China in the full expectation of selling themselves, either to survive and be fed, or to send money back home. In between is the common situation of the North Korean woman who perceives her security in China as so imperiled and her options so restricted that she is easily coerced into a marriage or prostitution arrangement as the only way to survive.
Numerous international agreements prohibit trafficking in persons, usually conceived of as trade in, or movement of persons in connection with slavery, prostitution, and/or other types of sexual exploitation.32 The various uses of the term are neither consistent nor precise. In the context of a decision by the United Nations to draft a convention against transnational organized crime, supplemented by an optional protocol on trafficking in persons, discussion on defining the elements of "trafficking" has centered on specifying that the crime involves coercion for the purpose of forced labor (including debt bondage) or servitude.33 Human Rights Watch understands "coercion" to include blackmail, fraud, deceit, isolation, abuse of power, threat or use of physical force, or psychological pressure. In this light, we view many of the cases of "advice" and "persuasion" to North Korean women in desperate situations to undercut any inference of a free choice.
Humanitarian workers who had encountered many North Korean women in this situation in China noted that many of those responsible for manipulating these women claim they are acting for their benefit. Aid workers described a typical scenario:
A former North Korean border guard who lived in China from 1999 to 2000 related a similar scenario:
A woman who was in her early 20's at the time she went to China in December of 1998 described her ordeal.36 Upon crossing the Tumen and staying for a week at a Korean-Chinese house in Kae San Tun with her uncle, the two of them were abducted by a group of thugs, who separated them and got into a brawl as to whether to trade her. A man connected with this group masqueraded in the clothing of a public security officer and broke up the fight, taking her to his house to spend the night, after which he released her. She eventually found shelter with a church in Yanji that was also hiding some fifty or sixty North Korean children. Church officials told her that they were planning to send the children back to North Korea as Chinese officials were searching for them, and she felt that they wanted her to leave as well.
She was forced to cohabit with the son. Shortly after she arrived, the Chinese family showed her a note purporting to be from the deacon, saying she was "sold" for the price of 5,000 renminbi [U.S.$600]. She thought the best option was to stay at the house, but her view soon changed.
Her thoughts turned to escape, but there seemed to be no way out.
After four months, and at least as many very serious beatings, she determined to flee.
She went to Song Kang and entered a church, where another church official found her and took her to her home, and later referred her to yet another church, where she met a fellow refugee from North Korea and married him.
On the other end of the spectrum is a woman who purposefully allowed herself to be "sold" as a wife, in order to buy time in China to contact relatives in Japan and move onward to a freer life. Yet the circumstances were also coercive, and led to her and her son suffering severe domestic violence.
This North Korean writer aspired to pursue her writing with greater freedom, yet found herself and her family economically and socially marginalized following their expulsion from Pyongyang in mid-1998, during the famine. Although she already had a husband and child in North Korea, she allowed one of her relatives to sell her in marriage to a Chinese farmer for 3,000 renminbi [U.S.$360]. "Actually, I was afraid of Chinese men...but I thought there was no other choice but to marry. I persuaded myself to view it as a kind of `studying abroad.'"37 The marriage proved disastrous; her habit of trying to jot down her daily experiences in Korean infuriated the farmer and his family. The same relative visited her, and tried to arrange her escape from the village, in order to sell her again, but they were reported to the local public security office, arrested, and eventually sent back across the North Korean border. She managed to escape again, this time with her small son, and took shelter in the house of a Korean Chinese Christian. This man advised her to marry his cousin, and she agreed, on the condition that he take no money for arranging the marriage, and that it be understood she was free to leave if she received help from relatives in Japan to migrate onward. This second marriage to an illiterate farmer also was unsuccessful, but she managed to persuade this husband to release her freely. She again sheltered with a neighbor, and accepted a third proposal of marriage from a Korean Chinese, because she was afraid she'd worn out her welcome: "fish in the air smells after three days." This time the "husband" turned out to be extremely violent.
Even women who settle down with Chinese husbands remain vulnerable. One aid worker related how some families had begun registering their North Korean wives on the household registration, with the expectation that they would thus be able to legitimize their China-born children, but these women were also being rounded up for forced return when crackdowns took place.38
Children Without a Future
These young people are known in Korean as kkot-jebi (child vagrants) and sometimes are described as "orphans," but it is more precise to say they are unaccompanied minors, some of whom have lost one or more parents, or whose parents are incapable of caring for them. Most appear to be boys, aged ten or older.40 In the late 1990's, they were a visible presence in towns such as Tumen in Jilin as beggars in markets, train stations, airports, and sometimes karaoke bars and restaurants that cater to foreigners.41 Typically the most mobile of migrants, the children cross frequently to conduct trade or bring their small earnings across the border to families in North Korea. Some take refuge in shelters established by missionary or humanitarian groups; others sleep on the streets. The street children are often the first to be rounded up in periodic crackdowns in China. For the few lucky enough to make it into third countries, their eventual social integration is made more difficult by their previous life of wandering between the relative freedom of life in China and their families in North Korea, and the `survival skills' they had to learn on the run. Some that arrive in South Korea are found to have serious psychological trauma from being raped, confined, or beaten while in China.42 These children also have been deprived of their right to education, often for years, and if they are lucky enough to land in a third country such as South Korea, they are often placed in classes with younger children.43
Arrest and Forced Return
Human Rights Watch interviewed seven refugees who had experienced arrest by the Chinese authorities. While some reported reasonable treatment and prison conditions,45 others related abuse.
Mr. Cho D, a former high-ranking military official, related the circumstances of his May 1998 arrest. "At the time I was arrested, I was in a small shop, eating. Five guys in civilian clothing attacked me, grabbed me, and threw me to the floor, and tied me with rope all around my body from my chest down. It was terrible." He spent forty days in the Shenyang security office and was then sent to the Dandong border facility, where he escaped by moving a bar in a window and jumping out. When he was interrogated, he learned that the North Korean consulate had sent a document accusing him of being a murderer, which may explain the excessive force he suffered during arrest. He denied this accusation, but the Korean Chinese interpreter at the police station told him that such accusations were the usual way North Korea framed requests to arrest and extradite North Koreans in China.46
Mr. Kim H.Y. was arrested in April 2000, while visiting a friend. Fifteen others from his church were arrested that day, as they all had "bought" temporary residency permits from the Soyoung police station in Yanji, and this fact was revealed when one family was caught. He reported his treatment in the Yanji, China prison as acceptable, with twelve people in a room approximately 300 square feet large, but things changed when he was transferred to the Hwaryong border guard unit. There some prisoners were beaten seriously or given electric shocks for being noisy, asking to be released, or singing. He was handcuffed to a chair and beaten because he insisted he was not North Korean and demanded that the eighty renminbi [U.S.$9.60] the authorities confiscated from him be returned.47 Mr. Kim Yong, arrested at the Mongolian border in July 1998, also reported he was beaten with clubs by Chinese border guards when he denied he was a North Korean migrant.48
There is evidence of the involvement of North Korean government agents in the process of identifying, interrogating, and pursuing North Koreans in China, although we did not learn whether North Korean agents have legal authority to arrest and take into custody these persons on Chinese territory.
Mr. Kim Sung-Min reported he was arrested in February 1996, while trying to sneak on board a ship in Dalian bound for South Korea. He identified himself to the Chinese security officials as a North Korean army captain who was seeking political asylum, only to be told "we do not recognize political asylum seekers." He was brought to a Chinese camp for North Koreans in Tumen and interrogated.
He was taken across the border to North Korea, to the Onsong County State Security Office where he eventually revealed his identity.
Another refugee reported being pursued by North Korean guards over the border into Chinese territory,51 and yet another reported his brother saw a North Korean car with security office license plates patrolling the Chinese side of the border.52
Surveillance, Arrest, and Detention of Humanitarian Aid Workers and Missionaries
In June 2002, there were increasing reports that China had interrogated and detained many South Korean humanitarian and religious workers on suspicion of aiding North Korean migrants.53 China reportedly was also questioning many South Koreans associated with the Yanbian University of Science and Technology, threatening both domestic and international travel restrictions.54 Particularly unnerving to such workers is the involvement of national security officers, who have reportedly taken over some of the investigatory activities of the local public security agents in Jilin; the latter have tended to be more sympathetic to North Koreans or at least more susceptible to bribery.55
In May 2001, four humanitarian workers from the South Korean Buddhist organization Good Friends were arrested by Chinese public security. China has usually just expelled religious and aid workers found to be assisting North Koreans,56 but this time the four were detained for fifty days, accused of espionage, and for some of this time, maltreated, prior to being expelled. One reported, "sometimes they screamed and caught us by the front of our shirts and forced us to talk." Several were systematically deprived of sleep and required to assume physical postures over extended periods that caused them great pain. Another related, "they handcuffed me by one of my hands and hung me on a high wall. I had to stand on my tiptoes." This sort of inhumane treatment verges on torture and is strictly prohibited under international law.57
In June 2002, four missionaries were arrested in China on charges that they had assisted illegal defectors. These were the first known indictments of those helping refugees. In July, China announced that three men were being held "under suspicion of organizing illegal border trespassing."58 Even journalists became targets of the Chinese government's crackdown. In late August, police in Beijing raided a South Korean journalist's home, seizing documents related to his investigation of the plight of North Korean refugees. 59
Human Rights Watch also received reports from refugees and aid workers of other missionaries who were believed to have been abducted to or arrested in North Korea in 2001. It is difficult, if not impossible, to confirm these reports, although North Korea does have a record of abducting South Koreans and foreigners in the past. Yet it is important to note that these rumors provoked intense anxiety among the refugee community because of the practice of many churches in recording in-depth profiles and life histories of the North Koreans they shelter in anticipation of promoting their claims as refugees. Some who agreed to speak with us believed that the details of their escape and life history were known to the North Korean government because the missionaries would have been compelled to reveal this information.
16 Human Rights Watch interview with Choi Jin-Yi, Seoul, July 11, 2001 and Human Rights Watch interview with H. You, Seoul, July 12, 2001. Even during the food shortage, food was far more available in Pyongyang than in most other parts of the country.
24 Unification White Paper, published by the National Unification Research Institute in 1998, says the "Illegal Immigrants Repatriation Agreement" was secretly signed in the early 1960s: "Those who escaped to China can easily be reported by cho-gyos (North Koreans living in China) and arrested by either special security agents from North Korea or Chinese police officials. If arrested, they are forcibly extradited according to the PRC-DPRK Escaped Criminals Reciprocal Extradition Treaty that was secretly concluded in early 1960." A letter to HRW from Hee-Young Cho, political counselor at the South Korean embassy in Washington, D.C., on August 1, 2002, confirmed that a later agreement was reached in 1986, but the contents have never been made public. The White Paper also refers to the 1986 protocol, referred to as the "Border Area Affairs Agreement."
32 See, e.g. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, art. 6; Convention on the Rights of the Child, arts. 34 and 35; and the 1949 Convention on the Suppression of Trafficking in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. A state's failure to protect migrant women from this severe abuse is also discrimination on the basis of gender and alienage, prohibited under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 2(1). See Human Rights Committee, General Comment 15, "The position of aliens under the Covenant" (Twenty-seventh session, 1986).
33 See discussion in Human Rights Watch, Owed Justice: Thai Women Trafficked into Debt Bondage in Japan (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2000), Section V: International Legal Standards on Trafficking in Women, available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/japan/5-int-stand.htm.
39 See Chung Byung-Ho, "Living Dangerously in Two Worlds: The Risks and Strategies of North Korean Children in China," paper presented at the Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, Chicago, March 22-25, 2001 [hereinafter Chung] and Jonathan Ansfeld, "Hungry North Koreans Scavenge for Food in Aid Shortage," Reuters, June 20, 2002.
43 Kim Ji-soo, "Defector Children Find They Can't Act Their Age," Electronic English version of JoongAng Ilbo, February 21, 2002 at http://english.chosun.com/w21data/html/news/200206/200206090019.html.
49 Human Rights Watch interview with Kim Sung-Min, Seoul, July 9, 2001. Kim Jong Il is the chief of state of North Korea and chairman of the Korean Worker's Party, and like his father before him, the object of a state-sponsored cult of personality.
53 See, e.g. Shim Jae-yun, "Over 100 Korean Missionaries Detained in China," The Korea Times, June 20, 2002, available at http://www.korealink.co.kr/times/200205/t2002052018443240110.htm and Kang Chol-hwan, "China Cracks Down on North Korean Refugees," Chosun Ilbo online ("Digital Chosun"), June 9, 2002, available at http://english.chosun.com/w21data/html/news/200206/200206090019.html.
55 Kang Chol-hwan, "China Cracks Down on North Korean Refugees," Chosun Ilbo electronic version ("Digital Chosun"), June 9, 2002, available at http://english.chosun.com/w21data/html/news/200206/200206090019.html.
56 See, e.g., Ven. Pomnyun, "Report on the 17th visit to the Chinese-North Korean border area," 1998, discussing the expulsion of Mr. Kim Hyun-dong of the Korean Sharing Movement in 1998, available at http://www.goodfriends.or.kr/eng/report/17th.htm (accessed Oct. 24, 2002).
57 The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which China is a party, defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession" at the hands of or with the acquiescence of a public official. Art. 1(1). Under this international treaty, states must prevent acts of torture, investigate them impartially, and punish them under their criminal law. See arts. 2(1), 4(1) and 12. Inhuman and degrading treatment is also prohibited under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a party, art. 7.
58 The Chinese foreign ministry announced the detention of Cui Yuanxu, a Korean American, along with Joseph Choi, and Chun Ki-won, a South Korean pastor, at a news conference in Beijing. In June, it said that Choi was detained in May for helping asylum seekers sneak into China, and that Chun was detained in March while assisting refugees to escape to Mongolia. "China Holds Three for Helping N. Korean Cross Border," Reuters, July 2, 2002. Amnesty International (AI) reported that Chun Ki-Won and Jin Qilong, an ethnic Korean Chinese national, were put on trial in Inner Mongolia, found guilty and given fines. Chun Ki-won was deported to South Korea. AI expressed concern about a group of 13 North Koreans they were helping to escape to Mongolia, saying they risked being forcibly returned to North Korea. Amnesty International, Urgent Action 235/02, July 25, 2002.
59 On August 31, police raided the home of Yeo Shi-Dong, a reporter for Chosun Ilbo, interrogated him, took documents and his passport. Earlier he had written an article about the arrest of North Koreans who tried to force the way into a Chinese government building to request refugee status. "Beijing Police Raid South Korean Journalist's Home," Reporters sans Frontiers, Paris, September 3, 2002.