Page last updated at 10:45 GMT, Thursday, 29 May 2008 11:45 UK

Deadly risks: Escaping North Korea


A North Korean woman and her 'guide' cross a partially frozen river

By Olenka Frenkiel
BBC News

Hunger is driving more and more North Koreans to escape to China, crossing a river frontier at the mercy of traffickers and corrupt police. The BBC has obtained extraordinary footage of the traffic, shot by South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

In the middle of the night a naked man emerges from the freezing waters of the Tumen River which divides North Korea and China.

He is a former soldier who now bribes the border guards so he can cross the river, trading in whatever he can.

Sometimes it's women. Tonight - caught on camera - he arrives alone carrying drugs.

Downstream - the camera's night vision lens picks out a woman who wades gingerly into the icy flow with her guide
An extended version of the footage can be seen on BBC Two's Newsnight programme at 2230 BST on 29 May

Shivering, he opens his mouth and brings out a package sealed in plastic. It is a sample of heroin manufactured in North Korea.

"Where is the woman?" demands the Chinese buyer, who's waited two weeks for the man to appear and is exasperated to see him turn up alone.

"She couldn't come tonight. But I've brought you these drugs," he answers. "Bangupi," he calls it.

"It is the best quality. If you want more I will bring you a kilo. The woman will come next time."

"Did you pay the soldiers?" the South Korean cameraman asks. "Yes of course, 500 Chinese Yuan," he replies (about $70.00 or £35.00).

His teeth rattling with cold, he turns back into the icy waters and pitch black to the North Korean side before the border guards he's bribed change shifts.

'It's a trick'

Downstream, the camera's night-vision lens picks out a woman who wades gingerly into the bone-chilling flow with her guide.

Frozen body
The deadly risks taken by those fleeing North Korea are all too apparent

She has paid to cross to China, a land of plenty for North Koreans who now face starvation as harvests at home fail and food prices soar.

She crosses the river naked - keeping her clothes dry so as not to be weighed down.

Wading ashore on the Chinese side she is met by the South Korean camera crew and struggles with frozen fingers as her clothes refuse to go on.

"It's so cold." Her teeth chatter. "My foot's stuck."

What she doesn't know is - a man is waiting.

As a Chinese citizen, he too is in search of a better life abroad and he wants a North Korean wife as his passport to South Korea.

Map - inc Tumen river

But any talk of South Korea, the North's old Cold War enemy thrusts her into panic.

It's hunger that has driven her to leave. Not ideology. And she doesn't want to be charged with treason if it turns out the people now surrounding her are North Korean secret police in disguise.

"I know it's a trick," she tells them, making clear she is not going to agree. "I'd be arrested and sent to a prison or labour camp."

Body frozen in ice

A new day. The river is frozen solid under a brilliant blue sky.

In the distance, what appears as a pile of stones turns, as the camera moves closer, into a woman's frozen body lying half-submerged in the ice.

The Chinese guide who brought them there kicks the fallen woman's frozen foot.

"Rock hard," he says, and relieves himself nearby. Had the crew not been there to film it, there would be no trace today of this unknown, nameless woman - just one of the many who embarked on this risky escape and did not make it.

Weighed down by her clothes, she froze where she fell until the ice melted and she was washed away.

'They live like ghosts'

But what is the fate of those who make it across into China?

Geum Hee
Geum-hee was caught in China, sent back and forced to have an abortion

Some are sold into the sex industry. Some marry - unofficially - but they must live in hiding from the authorities lest they are sent back and punished.

Their children too live as ghosts. Without official papers they are unable to access education or medical care.

"I just wish I had an official Chinese registration number," says one. "Even if I were crippled or poor, if I had a number I wouldn't have to worry about being sent back."

Shunshei is 11. Her mother was so frightened of being caught by the Chinese and sent back to North Korea she fled China, leaving Shunshei behind.

"When your mum sees you," her grandmother tells her kindly, "she'll say you look great in your new dress."

"Don't lie to me!" cries Shunshei. "My mum never calls - and she's never coming back."

Her mother now lives in Japan with a new husband who knows nothing of her little girl.

Forced abortion

A small number of people try to escape through Laos and Thailand to South Korea.

The numbers reaching the south have doubled in the last few years but the journey is dangerous and difficult.

Few are as brave as Geum-hee. As a tour guide in China near the border she's hidden her North Korean origins by disguising her accent and speaking fluent Mandarin.

But she too is illegal. She escaped from North Korea once before but was caught by the Chinese and sent back.

They refuse to recognise North Koreans as refugees, insisting they're economic migrants with no right to stay. She was pregnant.

"Against my will, they forced an abortion injection into the foetus. I couldn't do anything to stop them because there was an agent next to me."

Her voice breaks with emotion as she describes what happened next.

She escaped again and rejoined her husband but her next baby was born with cerebral palsy and cannot walk.

He is a bright child and keen to go to school. But as the son of an illegal immigrant and disabled to boot there's no chance.

Geum-hee decides she has to leave. Not the overland journey through Laos and Thailand but right through Beijing's shiny new airport.

She has bought a fake Chinese passport and is followed by the camera as she heads through passport control to Thailand and safety.

An extended version of the footage can be seen on BBC Two's Newsnight programme at 2230 BST on 29 May.

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