RENMING, China - By the time his brothers brought him the holiday meal that would save his life, Kim Jae Sung had spent 23 days in a North Korean cell the size of an upright coffin. His solitary confinement followed a death sentence for sneaking 11 relatives out of the world's most isolated country and into China.
Inside the meal package was a spoon that his guards had not seen. Kim used the handle to open the lock of his cell. He cracked the locks on two other gates and emerged outside for the first time in three months. It was nighttime, he recalled, and on wobbly legs he began the two- mile sprint to the Tumen River and the Chinese border.
Nearly a year later, Kim, 34, is certain what would await him if he
were returned to North Korea.
If the Chinese arrest and send me
back, my government will kill me, said the former railway worker,
speaking in an isolated Chinese farmhouse guarded by dogs and
surrounded by snowy mountains.
But like tens of thousands of other undocumented North Korean refugees, Kim and his relatives face growing uncertainty about their future here. In the past year, the situation of an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 refugees in this part of China has become increasingly precarious as the Chinese government--and those in the West--have seen a thawing in their relationship with the North Korean government.
Last month, Russia and China cooperated to forcibly repatriate seven
North Koreans in what the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees called a
direct violation of international law. U.N. refugee protection
officers had interviewed the seven in the Russian port city
Vladivostok, determined that the refugees faced
consequences if they returned home and committed to sending them to
South Korea, U.N. officials said.
Despite a record of handing 340 North Koreans over to U.N. protection
officers for transit to South Korea in recent years, Russia sent the
seven to China, and China sent them home.
Total silence was how
one U.N. official described the Western response to the forced
This was a direct and clear violation of
international law. In most parts of the world, the Americans would be
Aid officials said the silence fits a pattern that started last year when North Korea indicated that it was suspending its development of weapons of mass destruction. Foreign governments grateful for the easing of tension over North Korea's weapons programs have been less energetic about opposing Pyongyang on refugees or pressuring North Korea's leaders to distribute foreign food aid equitably to its famished population, aid officials say.
Last December, 21 Western aid agencies issued a joint statement blasting North Korea's government for blocking their efforts to reach the most vulnerable segment of North Korea's population and to monitor the aid they distribute. Oxfam became the third major aid agency to leave North Korea because it was not allowed to oversee aid shipments. No Western government joined the call for more access to monitor aid, even though it is their food and assistance at stake.
Since 1995, North Korea has received $580 million in food and other assistance, mostly from the United States, to ease the suffering of millions of North Koreans. Refugees and aid workers said that misuse of aid as a political weapon and its sale on the black market have forced tens of thousands of North Koreans to face starvation or to flee. Attempting to leave North Korea has its own risks--beatings, deprivation and even death for those who are caught.
South Korean intelligence officials said North Korea's population has fallen from 25 million to 22 million during the famine. Western aid officials operating in North Korea said they have seen evidence of a growing underclass of homeless children and vagabonds who are ignored by the state.
In some areas, refugees estimate that the death toll from the famine has reached 15 percent of the population. In addition, Western experts said the government of Kim Jong Il, bolstered by Western aid, appears to be stronger than it was when the famine began in 1995.
The North Korean government has received international dividends for its apparent decision to suspend its weapons programs, which include work on a ballistic missile capable of reaching much of Asia. The United States announced last month that a high-ranking North Korean official would conduct talks in Washington later this year. Washington already has lifted some economic sanctions against Pyongyang. Other countries are following suit. And Japan recently announced that it would resume aid deliveries.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen North Korean refugees from different parts of the country who were interviewed here painted a portrait of a food situation growing worse, with foreign aid going to bolster the government and international monitors kept at a distance from the corrupt practices or bleak realities of daily life.
Ten percent for war preparations, 10 percent for the people and 80
percent for the officials is how one North Korean doctor, who fled
to China late last year, described the distribution of Western
medicine in his hospital in Chongjin, the third biggest city in North
The United Nations came to my hospital once. It was very
sad. We would have loved to have told them the truth, but that would
have meant arrest for us. So we just smiled.
Kim Jae Ru, 67, a member of the Korean Workers' Party, worked for decades at the vast mine in Kumdug in South Hamgyong province. As the only major mine operating in North Korea, it receives a healthy ration of donated food, a mixture of 80 percent corn and 20 percent rice.
Workers who operate drills get a little under two pounds a day, drivers about a pound and a half, families that are not working get about nine ounces, students about 12 ounces, children 3 1/2 to 7 ounces. Kim, a retired party official at the mine, received a little more than a pound because he was considered patriotic. But workers at a food processing plant nearby received neither food nor electricity.
They would come over to our house to stay warm and watch TV, he
But we couldn't give them food. Sons and fathers are
struggling among themselves for food, so how can we share it with
I am not saying this is easy, he continued.
I have watched my
friends' children die. After a while, I stopped seeing them. It was
Kim said his five sons all survived the famine, in part because he used his party connection to secure food and in part because one son was a member of an elite military unit that also had access to food and medicine.
Only the children of powerful or useful people get U.N. food all
the time. The normal people get U.N. food only on special days, like
the birthdays of [former leader] Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, he
But in private markets, there is lots of U.N. food and
medicine. The dealers say, 'This is very nice. This is U.N. food' or,
'This is very nice. This is U.N. medicine.'
North Korea allows the World Food Program to assign about 25 people to monitor a program that is supposed to feed more than 6 million people. All the monitors' movements must be approved by North Korean officials and they are accompanied wherever they go.
We supply food to schools, nurseries and kindergartens but we
realize that not all children are in those institutions, said Peter
Smerdon, a spokesman for the World Food Program.
We are very
concerned about the children we are missing. . . . We know we are not
reaching everyone who needs food.
Fleeing the country is an option only for the swift and courageous. Refugees said people who have been arrested three times for illegally leaving the country risk execution, although the law is not carried out everywhere with the same vigilance. Regardless, returnees are placed in labor camps where conditions are poor and disease is rife.
Nearly two years ago, Sun Haiyu, a former textile plant worker from North Hamgyong province, crossed into China by swimming the Tumen River. After scampering up a steep bank in darkness, she knocked on the doors of farmers' houses. A Korean-Chinese family took her in. Within a week, the family had decided that the slim North Korean woman would marry their son. Within another week, they were wed.
Several months later, on Sept. 2, 1998, Chinese police barged into their house, looking for refugees. Sun was caught. Local police told family members they could buy Sun's freedom for a $100 bribe, big money in these parts. The family raised the money and Sun was released.
But 10 days later, police came again and took her away to a Chinese detention center. She was one month pregnant.
The Chinese took the attractive women and said that if we had sex
with them they would set us free, Sun recalled.
obeyed but they weren't freed. I saw insults written on my cell wall
in Korean about the Chinese. I didn't give in to them.
Sun was placed in the hands of North Korea's National Security Agency.
I was sent to a labor camp, she said.
We ate corn husks and
cabbage roots in a milky soup, once a day, every day. We worked from 5
a.m. until past dark, on fields and building houses.
Sun slept in a 20-by-20-foot room with 60 to 70 other women; almost all of them were refugees returned from China. About half were pregnant. Some were showing; others, like Sun, were not.
The ones who had big stomachs had a bad time, Sun said.
Korean guards would beat them and say they were carrying a Chinese
pig. I saw one officer take a stick and shove it into the stomach of
one woman. She lost her child that way.
As winter deepened, those arrested in the summer began to die. The
labor camp did not issue new clothes.
Disease spread through the
group rapidly, she said.
We were continuously sick. People were
dying away. I saw four women die myself.
Sun was released on Dec. 9, 1998. Three weeks later she was back in China, reunited with her husband. Her daughter was born in April of last year.
At night, I hear cars and I get very nervous. I think the police
will break into our home again, Sun said, speaking softly in a safe
house run by South Korean ministers, plywood boards blocking the
If I'm arrested again I will pay any price. I don't want to
be returned to North Korea again. I'd rather kill myself with