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Tuesday, 26 June, 2001, 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK
China's North Koreans in hiding
The Jang family fled North Korea two years ago
There may be tens of thousands like the Jang family
The flight of a North Korean family into the Beijing offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has highlighted the plight of North Koreans, tens of thousands of whom are believed to be living illegally inside China.

The BBC's East Asia analyst, Francis Markus, recently met some refugees living in hiding near the Chinese-North Korean border.

If North Korea became as prosperous as South Korea, then I would consider going back to my country

A North Korean refugee in China
The headlights of the rattling Eastern European-built car sent a dancing, wavering beam on to the rough dirt track.

We bounced our way past hamlet after hamlet of dark cottages with the occasional light bulb or television set illuminating a window.

The driver, a local ethnic Korean, told us to say we were going to the airport in case we were stopped on the way by police.

Nervously, I kept checking the passenger door mirror.

But we had long since lost any local traffic and all was blackness behind us.

When we arrived in the hamlet that was our destination, a middle-aged woman escorted us cautiously down a path leading to a simple cottage.


Sitting cross-legged on the cheap patterned linoleum inside, the couple from North Korea sounded nervous and overawed, as they recounted their escape into China three years ago.

"My mother was very ill, so I started coming to China to smuggle some medicine for her," said the husband.

His face looked worn with anxiety.

"Then I was once caught and there was a danger that I might have been sent to prison if I had been caught again."

Shallow river

The Tumen River, which separates the two countries, is so shallow at the point where they entered China that the couple and their two young children were able to wade across.

It was still a nerve-wracking experience.

"Since everybody keeps close watch on each other and the security by the border garrison is tight, it is extremely difficult to cross the border."

Once inside China, like tens of thousands of other North Korean illegal immigrants, the couple concentrated on making a living as best they could by working the land.

Christian help

Bolstered by Christian missionary groups, many of them from South Korea, local churches play a big role in helping many of the refugees to survive in hiding.

North Korea has experienced years of famine
North Korea has experienced years of famine
But we heard that dozens of North Koreans sheltered by one Christian group had been sent back in recent months.

For this couple, the almost exclusively ethnic-Korean hamlet provides a relatively safe haven.

The women seemed moved by the solidarity and kindness they witnessed.

"I think I don't need to worry about people living in this village. But I'm worried that people from outside of this village might find out that we are from North Korea.

"So we try to hide the fact, especially when we hear about door to door security checks taking place, we go outside in order not to be arrested and our neighbours try to shield us from arrest."

Remote prospect

For them, as for the vast majority of North Koreans who flee into China, making it to South Korea seems a prospect remote from their everyday hardship.

"I haven't got the ability or strength to even think about it," the husband told me.

But return to North Korea of their own accord seems equally unlikely, at least for now.

"If North Korea became as prosperous as South Korea, then I would consider going back to my country," he said.

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See also:

26 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
Korean family poser for UN
18 May 01 | Media reports
N Korean defector sends e-mail SOS
16 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Plea to help North Korean refugees
16 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
North Korean defections up
16 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
A family affair
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