YANJI, China — Not so many years ago, North Korean refugees were a common sight in these parts. Women and young children could be found begging on the streets, the capital of the Korean autonomous zone that flanks China’s border with North Korea.
Local Christian churches worked as part of an informal network to move refugees through and out of China, sometimes with success, and often not. Standing on the side of a highway that overlooks a North Korean communal farm on the other side of the river, a local Han Chinese man described how four or five years back, it wasn’t unusual to see North Koreans crossing the river in daylight to escape starvation and searing poverty in their own country.
“Of course we helped them, with food or what we could,” he says, chatting easily, moments before a truckload of People’s Liberation Army soldiers arrived and ordered him to stop talking with foreign journalists. “They had children with them. What else can you do?”
Though thousands of North Koreans live under the radar in China, and move through its underground network to safer destinations, massive crackdowns have reduced their numbers dramatically in recent years.
Even though most of the rest of the world considers fleeing North Koreans political refugees, China views them as illegal immigrants and deports them when caught — a practice that reportedly ends in labor camp sentences or worse. Estimates vary widely, but it’s believed between 100,000-400,000 North Korea refugees live in China. Thousands more enter, stay or move through each year, but their numbers have slowed with tightened, tense border controls.
The vast majority of North Koreans and undocumented immigrants from other poor countries who enter China have no legal standing here. While tens of thousands of white-collar workers and their families labor legally in China, the country has a closed-door policy on immigration. Very few non-Chinese are ever granted citizenship and illegal laborers are ejected at will.
In the Yanbian region, villagers recounted how police go door-to-door periodically to check for North Koreans, particularly checking the ethnically Korean locals to make sure they’re not harboring North Korean relatives. About 40 percent of this area’s 2 million residents are Korean — mostly second or third generation immigrants from North Korea. Many still have large families on the other side of the border, and increasingly fear for their health and safety as communications have tapered off.
In one small village within sight of the border, Wen Honghua and her husband recalled how they used to be able to help friends and family in North Korea by sending food and other gifts — once even sending back a black-and-white television. That’s impossible now, as even the local Christian church is no longer allowed to assist refugees who make it across to China. A minister who practiced in the area was sent back to South Korea, they said, and the church has been under pressure since.
“The church is much poorer than before, without much support,” said Wen. “If refugees did manage to come across now, they would have to get help from their relatives because the church can no longer help them.”
This is a common story in the North Korean border region, with South Korean ministers and church networks under tighter pressure. By controlling their ability to offer aid and refuge, the Chinese government limited options available to North Korean refugees, hence limiting their numbers.
The situation is quite different on China’s opposite border, the boundary with Myanmar some 2,500 miles away. There, last summer, 40,000 Burmese refugees flooded into China in a matter of days, seeking shelter from civil war. China quickly established refugees camps and worked speedily to send them home. The border between Yunnan province and Myanmar remains relatively fluid and free today, nothing at all like the ultra-tight controls on the frontier next to North Korea.
But experts say there are reasons to compare the two places. China has long feared a flood of refugees from the poverty-stricken North Korea should the current regime collapse. With regime change on the near horizon, tensions are again high on the border.
In a report last year for the journal China Security, researcher Drew Thompson said the Myanmar refugee crisis offered an important illustration of how China might handle a flood of refugees from North Korea, should that country become destabilized. The Myanmar response, Thompson wrote, illustrated China’s emergency preparedness, development of which was jump-started by the 2002 SARS crisis.
“The successful incident response in Yunnan should give confidence to officials and planners that they have a feasible, tested framework for addressing refugee crises or other humanitarian disasters in their border regions,” Thompson wrote. “The lessons learned from the Myanmar incident are applicable to potential North Korean scenarios in some respects, while it is unique in others.”
Of note, according to Chinese border experts, is that the North Korean border is patrolled by the People’s Liberation Army, while main sections of the boundary with Myanmar are guarded by paramilitary border police.
For now, the Korean border remains tightly locked down and tense, a far cry from the boundary with Myanmar, where smugglers operate easily in broad daylight. In June, China lodged a formal complaint against North Korea for shooting and killing three Chinese citizens on the border.