Glimpse of World Shatters North Koreans’ Illusions

Copyright The New York Times Published: March 24, 2005
YANJI, China – Sitting on a bare floor in a chilly one-room apartment, Lee Hae Jon and her younger sister, Hae Sun, struggled recently for words to describe their lives since they clandestinely made their way here from North Korea five years ago. Their mother married a Chinese man and disappeared from their lives without a trace. Since then, a Chinese widow of Korean descent has taken the girls into her apartment and kept them clothed and fed. But for five years, the teenage sisters have not dared to go outside in daylight for fear of being sent back to their country, or worse, trafficked as young brides or prostitutes in this booming Chinese border city.
The sisters try to teach themselves Chinese, using a couple of old textbooks and repeating phrases from television, which they watch endlessly. A crude Hula-Hoop is their only source of exercise, and each knock on the door their only excitement. They never know whether it is help from their caretaker’s friends or the police coming to arrest them.
“We have no friends, and no future, nothing at all, really,” said the soft-spoken older sister, Hae Jon, 17. “But if we stay here, at least we have enough to eat. In our country, we could go for days without eating.”
Within months, according to an underground network of people who help support the sisters, Hae Jon may be alone. Hae Sun, a shy girl of 13, is dying of kidney cancer and is not permitted to be flown out of the country for advanced care.
The Lee sisters are part of a virtually stateless underground population of North Koreans who have crossed into China along the 877-mile border between the countries and live on the lam in this region. International refugee and human rights groups have estimated their numbers at 200,000 and growing.
The exodus of North Koreans to Jilin and Liaoning Provinces began in earnest in the waves of famine that struck North Korea in the mid-1990’s, killing as many as two million people.
The refugees pose challenges for China and for North Korea. Chinese officials fear that a flood of North Koreans across their borders would not only pose a huge economic strain on the region, but could eventually stoke a territorial dispute because of historic Korean claims in the region. For North Korea, the refugees’ flight to China offers a pressure valve, allowing the poor to earn desperately needed money. But it also allows them a glimpse of the richness of the outside world, and that could be destabilizing.
Some of the refugees want to migrate to other countries, particularly South Korea, which they perceive as being hugely wealthy and hospitable. Others want to disappear amid the two million ethnic Korean Chinese in this border region. But increasingly, the refugees plan to shuttle secretly back and forth between the countries, coming to China to supply their petty commerce back home, to take care of health problems or to see relatives before returning to the hardships of their homeland. All face the perils of a paperless existence that prevents them from easily traveling to a third country, renders their presence in China illegal and exposes those who return home by wading across the Tumen or Yalu Rivers to the risk of drowning, being shot by border guards or facing punishment in labor camps.
One woman who plans to keep shuttling between countries is a 42-year-old military nurse. “I am in China now, and it is just like I had heard – very developed, full of people, with everything you could ever want to buy,” she said. “But I have no ID card, no residence permit. I am in a free country, but I am not free.”
The woman’s unit, which served in the border regions, providing her with a glimpse of the richer world beyond, was dissolved in 1997. She said she had left an 18-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son in North Korea, and would return there, once she had earned money in China and could buy shoes and clothes to take home to sell. “Otherwise, there is just no way to make a living in my country,” she said. If the former military nurse had a good idea of what life was like in China, most recent arrivals here, including many who live close to the border, said they had a vague idea of China’s striking new wealth.
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