People Who Cross the River

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

The Chinese-Korean border is easy to cross, and it is clear that numbers of the defectors are kept small only by security measures undertaken by the North Korean side. However, the story of the region is essentially the story of the cross-border movement. Technically, the narrow Tumen and relatively broad Yalu divide the territories of two different countries. However, both banks of the Tumen are inhabited by the Koreans, and for large part of the last century neither state was either willing or able to control the border completely. It has been porous for decades, and in a sense it remains porous nowadays. The cross-border migration, legal or otherwise, has never stopped completely.

It might sound strange now, but until the late 1970s North Korea was seen by the Chinese as a land of relative prosperity, so the refugee flow moved from China to Korea. In the 1960s many ethnic Koreans fled the famine and the madness of the “cultural revolution,” looking for a refuge in Kim’s country. There, at least, people were certain to receive 700 grams of corn every day. Many of those early refugees eventually moved back, but only a handful were persecuted by the Chinese authorities. In most cases the returned migrants just resumed the work at the factories and people’s communes where they had worked before their escape. This movement was large, it involved few ten thousand people at least, and many of those people were saved by their sojourn in North Korea.

This episode, not widely known outside the area, is still well remembered by the Chinese. Many of my interlocutors explained their willingness to help the North Korean refugees in the following way: “When life was harsh here, they helped us. Now it is our turn.”

The Chinese border protection system has always been quite lax, but from the 1970s North Korean authorities have tried to the keep border tightly controlled. However, all their efforts could not prevent a massive exodus of the North Koreans, which began around 1995.

In those years North Korea was struck by a disastrous famine which led to massive deaths. The number of its victims has been estimated at between 250,000 and 3,000,000 with 600-900,000 being probably the most reliable figure so far. The northern parts of the country, adjacent to the border, were the hardest hit.

So it comes as no surprise that many North Koreans illegally moved across the border to find work and refuge in China. Around 1999 when the famine reached its height the number of such people reached an estimated 200-300,000.

This movement was not authorized, but from around 1996 Pyongyang authorities ceased to apply harsh penalties to the border-crossers. Until that time, an attempted escape to China would land you a prison for years. From the late 1990s, an escape to China was treated as a minor offence. It is even possible that the North Korean authorities deliberately turned a blind eye on the defectors: after all, people who moved to China were not to be fed, and also, being most active and adventurous those people would probably become trouble-makers had they been forced to stay in North Korea.

A vast majority of those refugees stayed in the borderland area where one can survive without any command of Chinese (the ethnic Koreans form some 35% of the population, and Korean villages are common). The refugees took up odd jobs, becoming construction workers, farm hands, waitresses and cooks in small restaurants. The authorities hunted them down and deported them back to North Korea, but generally without much enthusiasm, since both low-level officials and population by and large was sympathetic to the refugees’ plight. The older Chinese know only too well what it means to suffer from famine.

Most of the refugees were women, some of whom married the local farmers – usually those who would not find a wife otherwise. In most cases it means that they were paired with drunkards, drug addicts or gamblers, but in some cases their partners were merely dirt-poor farmers. These marriages were not usually recognized by Chinese law since these women, technically speaking, did not exist. In some cases, they saved enough money to bribe the officials and had a Chinese citizen ID issued. If this happened, a refugee woman changed her identity, becoming a Chinese national.

Nowadays, the refugees’ number has shrunk considerably, even though old figures are often uncritically cited by the world media. Nowadays, people in the know believed that between 30-50,000 North Koreans are hiding in China.

Why did their numbers go down recently? There are few reasons for that. To start with, a remarkable improvement of the domestic situation in North Korea played a role, but most people with whom I talked to in China in July agreed that the major reason for this change is the revival of the North Korean border security in recent few years. Until 2004 or so, North Korean authorities usually turned a blind eye to mass exodus of their people to China. Now their position has changed. They understand that the border serves as a major conduit for unauthorized information about the outside world, and now this information is becoming dangerous. They also believe that the famine is over, so people can be fed if they stay in North Korea. So, it seems that the era of large-scale illegal migration is over. Nonetheless, history of the region indicates that this movement is unlikely to ever be stopped completely.


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