Monday, March 07, 2005

N. Koreans Fleeing Hard Lives Discover New Misery in China: Illegal Status Forces Many Underground

By Edward Cody, Washington Post Foreign Service, March 7, 2005; Page A10

TUMEN, China -- After five days of hiking in the biting cold, Lee Shanyu made her escape from the other bank of the Tumen River, where the tortured land of North Korea ends in a row of barren brown hills crusted with frost.

The promise of a bribe to North Korean border guards got her to the river's edge, she recalled, and a furtive midnight trot across the frozen water got her to this side of the border, where she said the police all seemed to be indoors trying to stay warm. And so in the middle of the night, pale, penniless and poorly clothed, another desperate North Korean had washed up in China. I decided to take a chance," Lee, 25, said to explain her risky flight across the border Feb. 20. "We have to do something," she added in an interview, fighting back tears as she recalled the mother she left behind. "We can't make a living in North Korea."

Every day, according to aid workers, a handful of North Koreans make the same decision, driven by hunger, want and oppression. The lucky ones find their way to South Korea, a few by sneaking into embassies in Beijing, some by traveling to neighboring countries to get help. Others get picked up by Chinese police and sent back. But many -- aid workers estimate the total is more than 200,000 -- end up working underground in China, trapped by their illegal status in menial labor, prostitution, concubinage or petty crime.----------------------------

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