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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 June, 2004, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
N Koreans risk lives for freedom
A group of North Koreans who on Tuesday launched a bid for asylum in China's capital Beijing spoke to the BBC's Louisa Lim about their shadowy lives in hiding. Their names have been changed as they fear reprisals against family members still living in North Korea.

A Chinese military police guard, left, struggles to hold back a group of North Korean asylum-seekers at the Spanish Embassy in Beijing Thursday March 14, 2002
There have been several asylum bids via embassies in Beijing

They looked thin and malnourished, but they were marshalling their strength as they prepared to try to seek asylum - the culmination of a long journey through China.

Ms Na, a pretty young woman with a shy smile, left North Korea two years ago when the outside world believed the worst of the food shortages were over.

"I left because there was no food, but also because I wanted freedom. I wanted to be able to live how I wanted to live," she said.

"It was very difficult in North Korea. I saw people dying on the streets, people starving, people whose faces were wasted away from the lack of food. I didn't want that any more."

Despite a constant barrage of propaganda telling North Koreans their country is doing fine, many think otherwise.

The North Koreans told me most people in the Hermit Kingdom now disliked their leader, Kim Jong-il, and blamed him for the lack of food.

But of the thousands who flee across the border to China, few realise how hard life will be.

Yoon Woong-joo, a weary-looking man, said life in China was as filled with fear as life back home.

When they told me to leave or they'd call the police, I felt like dying
Yoon Woong-joo on his last, failed asylum bid

"I can't find the words to say how hard it is," he said.

"It's difficult to find work, and sometimes we don't get paid or we get beaten up. We can't go to the police or they'll send us back."

As Pyongyang's oldest ally, Beijing's position is clear.

"These people do not fall into the category of refugees, but rather, according to us, they are illegal border crossers," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said.

"We know they come to China mainly for economic reasons. I don't think they come to China for fear of political repression or something."

Security patrols guard foreign embassies to try to deter bids by asylum-seekers. And China's position has consequences for people like Yoon Woong-joo.

Earlier this year, he made it into an embassy school compound in Beijing, but was told to leave as he could not produce his ID card.

"When they told me to leave or they'd call the police, I felt like dying. It was the worst feeling in the world. I used some metal to make a knife and I was going to swallow it.

"But I couldn't commit suicide, so I left. So I went all the way back to North Korea where I got the documents, and I'll try again until I make it to freedom."

Difficult choice

From our conversation, it was clear these people knew the risks they were taking.

"If we're caught and sent back, we could face execution," one said, "but we don't care any more."

You can die trying to get asylum, but it's worth it for freedom
Ms Na

They told me if they stayed in North Korea they would starve to death, and if they stayed in China, they would eventually get caught anyway.

Mr Pak had already been sent back once before. He showed me a scar on his head he said he had got from a beating during four months in a North Korean prison.

"I spent all the time crouched on the floor on my knees. Every day they'd only give us an inch of corn soup to eat. Because there was no food, I got dizzy if I ever stood up. There were 30 of us, and in the winter two people froze to death," he said.

"You can die trying to get asylum, but it's worth it for freedom," Ms Na said. Her big eyes shone with hope.

Chinese policemen trying to figure out what happened after North Korean refugees managed to enter a German embassy school in Beijing, China, Tuesday, June 1, 2004
Yoon Woong-joo and friends sought asylum in an embassy school

"I'll do anything in South Korea," Mr Yoon said, "all I want is to make enough money to eat."

As they talked about their plans for South Korea they started to laugh.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, they made their break into the German embassy school, by scaling its walls.

As dawn rose, their silhouettes could be seen inside the building. It seemed as if their dreams of freedom were to be realised.

But not for one man.

Again Yoon Woong-joo was turned away, the man who had risked his life to fetch proof of his identity from North Korea.

His friends are one step closer to South Korea, but he is back in hiding.

Homeless, effectively stateless and alone, and like thousands of other North Koreans in China, he is living a shadowy hand-to-mouth existence on the margins of society.


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