The other side of the DPRK

From The Economist
June 17th, 2000

About 100,000 northerners are believed to have crossed into north-eastern China, where some 2m ethnic Koreans have lived alongside the Chinese since the mid-1800s. Recently, the numbers crossing the river have slowed down, partly, it is thought, because the famine in North Korea has eased. But the North Korean guards have also doubled the bribe they demand from those they let pass.

Some people return home after scavenging for food, but many remain, hoping to better their lives or to escape persecution. They face a perilous existence, in constant fear of being caught and deported. It is from these refugees that a picture of the grim existence of North Koreans emerges. They also give a glimpse of the extent of the opposition to Kim Jong Il’s rule.

That opposition is feeble. Some of it comes from Christian groups, especially those established by South Korean missionaries who look after some of the refugees. A mission in Yanji, for instance, helps to care for 100 or so North Korean children and 50 adults. Missionaries say they convert about one in five to Christianity and some are then sent back to North Korea to spread the word.

There are said to be about 50 underground churches in North Korea, usually houses where people go to pray and read the Bible in secret. Although there is little sign of it yet, some people think that the Christians could one day openly stand up for their rights, as the Falun Gong movement has in China.

Other refugees seem more determined to overthrow rather than challenge the North’s leaders. A group of armed North Korean soldiers sneaked into China in May to join a resistance group hiding in the mountains, according to one missionary. This, he claims, has made China strengthen its frontier controls.

A North Korean academic, who came to China two years ago to carry out a survey of the refugees, says he decided not to return home: after experiencing life in China and learning about South Korea, he felt betrayed by the North’s regime. Now he says he is determined to help overthrow it.

Some people talk of attempted coups. One is supposed to have been staged by the 6th Army Corps in the north-east of the country in January 1996, but was quickly put down. Officers were executed and the unit has since been dissolved, recalls a former lieutenant in a North Korean special-forces unit who crossed the Tumen river with his wife and son three years ago.

A woman who fled a year ago says one of the North’s big problems is a lack of food-processing skills. Only when she came to China did she realise that canned fish could be sold for more money than raw fish. She plans to use this valuable piece of capitalist knowledge if warmer relations ever allow her to go home.


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