A North Korean family seeking asylum in Beijing has put the spotlight on one of the world’s largest refugee problems, largely unknown to the outside world and unrecognized by mainland China itself.
Over the years, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have fled starvation and oppression at home for better lives abroad.
While some have crossed North Korea’s narrow border with Russia into Siberia, the vast majority have gone to China and are hiding out in the northeastern part of the country, although assessments of their numbers vary.
The South Korean government puts the number between 10,000 and 30,000, South Korean activists put the figure at up to 200,000, and some estimates even reach as high as 300,000.
In sharp contrast to the frontline dividing North and South Korea, which is characterized as the most heavily fortified in the world, North Korea’s border with mainland China is one of the world’s most porous.
The Tumen River, which most North Koreans cross in order to get into the mainland is fordable in many places, and in an indication of the ease of movement, reports indicate many North Koreans have made multiple trips back and forth.
Another reason why mainland China is the preferred destination for North Korean refugees is the cultural proximity and the presence of a large ethnic Korean community in northeast China, referred to as “Chaoxian” people.
The common culture and the ability to communicate enable many of the refugees to eke out a living in mainland China. Young females often see prostitution as the only way to survive.
Mainland China, a signatory of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, does not recognize the Korean presence inside its border as a refugee issue, but considers the North Koreans economic migrants.
Aid organizations helping North Koreans escape abroad even accuse Beijing of engaging in increasingly close cooperation with Pyongyang to stem the tide.
“The Chinese government has recently stepped up its efforts to tighten border patrols after a request from the North Korean government,” said Lee Young-hwa, a Tokyo-based representative of the North Korean People Urgent Action Network.
“Its standard practice is to arrest North Korean refugees and immediately send them back to North Korea,” Lee said.
Even though signs are that the mainland Chinese government is tightening its controls, the North Korean refugees face few obvious alternatives to staying put.
Mongolia, almost 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the Sino-Korean border, has reportedly beefed up its border security to keep out refugees.
Other countries, such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, are reachable only after a grueling trip from mainland China’s far northeast to its remote southwest.
North Korean refugees are not completely left to their own devices as they set out on their thousand-mile treks that may eventually end in South Korea.
Underground networks, manned by missionaries and successful refugees, provide desperately needed assistance, and even South Korean diplomats are reported to offer low-key help.