NK Refugees Tell of Stricter Border Security

June 2008

Since its founding in 1998, LFNKR has been supplying food, clothing, and medicines to needy people in North Korea and to North Korean refugees who have fled into China.During the period from April 28 to May 10, 2008, LFNKR supplied through its local network one ton of rice and 80 first aid kits to needy people in North Korea and also to North Korean defectors hiding in China.

Also, in response to strong requests from local staff members in North Korea, 300kg of seed corn was supplied to two hub stations in South Hamgyong and North Hamgyong in North Korea.

The following report came from LFNKR local staff members.

Reinforced Chinese border security

The LFNKR staff member had visited the same border area for the clandestine aid supply operation in March. An unwelcome surprise this time was the reinforced security at the border between China and North Korea. There were two border guard checkpoints on the border road, although it is a very short distance from Tumen to Longjing along the Tumen River. At the checkpoints, everyone passing is being required to show their IDs and answer detailed questions about their destination and purpose of visit. The border guards are even opening the trunks of vehicles now to check inside.

Testimony by new North Korean defectors

On April 23, before distribution of the aid supplies had even started, JRS-02 (one of LFNKR’s shelters in a mountain area) received three new North Korean refugees, Mr. Choi in his 50s, Ms. Kim in her 40s and Mr. Chong in his 20s. They said it took them one month to walk all the way to the shelter from Kangwondo. They told the local staff members there about the current situation in North Korea.

Ms. Kim showed her badly swollen legs and recounted her difficulties. She said, “We had completely run out of food at home, and I had decided that I was certain to also die from starvation just as my husband did in back 1997. So I decided to gamble on fleeing into China, hoping to find enough food to fill my stomach rather than sitting at home waiting to starve.

She also said, “People are taking whatever they find, including their old clothes, to market to exchange for corn or potatoes. When they run out of things to exchange for food, they go into the mountains to look for wild plants to survive. The current situation in North Korea looks the same as it did about ten years ago when so many starved to death. People are moaning that “The Arduous March” has started again.”

Massive starvation again?

“Back in 1992 or 1993, regular food distribution was suddenly stopped, and many people died from starvation because they could think of no other ways to find food. Today, however, many people have acquired the skills and wisdom they need for survival. They have learned to secure food for themselves by conducting trade.”

In this season, new grasses are starting to grow, so people go into the mountains and fields to look for edible plants. They put a small amount of corn meal in cooking pans and add lots of grasses to make grass porridge. When they run out of corn meal, then they just have to eat grass. Every day, nothing but grass. People are so starved. I worry terribly about my three daughters who are still at home.

Second coming of “The Arduous March” ? a repeat of 1992-1993?

“The prices of food have been rising since January this year, and now the price of rice is three times higher, reaching 3100 won (about $3.00) per kg, and it will soon be 4000 won per kg. If this situation continues for another few months, it could be worse than the previous “Arduous March” period. I’m afraid many people are going to die of hunger.”

“Villages are having a hard time getting farmers to work on farms. Many of the farmers cannot work because of starvation. Recently, the number of families who only eat one meal a day is rapidly increasing. I was planning to get as much food as possible in China and bring it back home, but the reinforced guard prevents me from moving out of this mountain. I just don’t know what to do now.”

The amount for bribing guards has tripled

It seems that the money required to bribe a border guard when crossing the Tumen River has tripled. It used to be 500RMB (about $72.00).

“I promised to hand money equivalent to 1500RMB ($216.00) to each border guard on the North Korean side when I crossed the river to come here,” Ms. Kim said. The 1500RMB is a great deal of money even in China. How could she earn so much money?. She said she would beg her aunt living in Heilongjiang, which is not easy to reach since it is not near the border. If she cannot contact her aunt, then she will never be able to go back to North Korea. This, however, is not uncommon.

“It’s been one week since I crossed the Tumen River. Kind people bring us lots of food, vegetables, and meat, and I can eat until my stomach is full every day, but the terror never leaves me, not even for the blink of an eye.

Repatriation means death in prisons

“Few people in our village ever try to escape from North Korea, because almost no outside information reaches our village, which is far inland. Most of them don’t even know that they could get enough food to fill their stomachs here in China. If they knew, I’m sure they would all try to flee to China. Most of the villagers believe that the people in all other countries are living lives like their own. A few people in the village who tried to flee into China were arrested. Unlike villages near the border, the punishments are much more severe in our village, since it is located inland. Hardly anyone ever comes out of the jails alive.

Incentive pay to informers has risen 16-fold

The increasingly severe punishments scare village supervisors in China.

“The best we can do to help is providing them with food, clothes, medicines and the like. We cannot protect them by letting them stay at our homes or guide them anywhere.

In April, the Chinese security policemen began coming into our houses every day to check for North Korean defectors. If they find that any of us has let them stay or helped them move anywhere, then they will fine us at least 8,000 to 10,000RMB ($1,150 ? $1,445), plus imprisonment.

I hear that anyone reporting to the security police about where North Korean defectors are hiding will receive a large reward. Recently, five female North Korean defectors were arrested in our village. It seemed some despicable man in the village reported them to the security police. We have no idea how much incentive money the man received. But, one day, we unexpectedly discovered who the informer was. We caught him, beat him, and drove him out of our village. The whole village agreed to punish him because he had taken away the hope of happiness of some village members who had found kind North Korean wives.”

Limitation on food taken out of China and Restriction on visitors into China

“Neither South Korea nor China provides food aid any longer. Until last year, 10-ton trucks loaded with food were seen at major commercial hubs in Yanbien, but we don’t see them this year. Now, we have tight limitations on how much food Korean-Chinese people can take with them when they visit their relatives in North Korea. I hear that the weight limitation on food that can be taken out is 200kg.

In addition, from March of this year, they began to apply even stricter limitations on North Koreans visiting China. Just showing a pass permit is no longer enough to enter China, because it has become common for North Koreans carrying such passes to flee to foreign countries outside China, instead of returning to North Korea. I hear this is because the security for the coming Beijing Olympics in August has been strengthened. During the Olympics, there will be many foreign tourists in China, which means North Koreans would have many more opportunities for access to foreigners.

The North Korean authorities are most concerned that a large number of North Korean people might flee into South Korea during the Beijing Olympics.”