North Koreans driven across the border into China by hunger would return to their homeland if it were more “open,” according to defectors interviewed recently in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin.
More than 20,000 North Korean defectors are now estimated to live in Chinese areas bordering North Korea, with others moving farther into China to escape detection by authorities.
“We would return to North Korea, absolutely. That’s where our hometown, parents, and siblings are,” several of the defectors said.
Many of those interviewed said they had crossed the Tumen River from North Korea after hearing they could find work in China. In total, an estimated 100,000 North Koreans now live throughout China.
“I escaped from North Korea with the help of an ethnic Korean resident of China,” said one man, Lim Young Sun.
“I wanted to work for a few years, make some money, and return to North Korea. I was always busy trying to find food and survive.”
“There was nothing to eat. I left North Korea because I was hungry,” another man, Choi Myung Chul, said.
Plan to return
Lim Young Sun and another defector—a woman, Moon Hye Run—said they plan to return to their families in North Korea after working for a year or two in China.
Both had crossed the Tumen river into China in December 2010 after leaving Chungjin in North Hamgyeong province.
But Lim said that North Korea must relax the strict controls it imposes on its people if it wants to improve their lives.
“Openness, liberalization. That’s what’s needed,” he said.
“Young people should be able to spread their wings and live freely,” added Moon. “But they are unable to do that in North Korea.”
“The biggest problem is the lack of freedom,” she said.
Nuclear program blamed
Asked if he had received food aid sent by the United Nations or South Korea while living in the North, Lim answered, “No, never.”
“I did eat rice that was stolen and then sold in open markets,” Lim said. “As far as I know, all the rice sent by South Korea is given to the military.”
Most of the defectors interviewed expressed a negative view of their country’s nuclear weapons program, which they blamed for the day-to-day hardships endured by North Korean citizens.
“That is no reason to feel proud,” said Kim Chang Sook, 80, who defected from the North Korean city of Munsan in October 2010 after having been deported from China three years before following an earlier escape.
“It’s just a matter of saying, ‘Look, we’ve got it. We’re tough.’ That’s all,” she said.
“We could feed all the people of North Korea for 10 years if we used the money spent on preparations for war.”
Life remains hard
Even for those who successfully cross the border into China, life remains hard, and many go into hiding to avoid detection, some of those interviewed said.
“The Chinese authorities have intensified their crackdown on North Korean defectors,” said Kim Jae Sung, a North Korean man who escaped from North Hamgyeong province in 2009 and now works in the Chinese border city of Yanji.
“Until a while ago, one could easily see North Korean defectors in the open, but nowadays they don’t want to show themselves, and they live in hiding.”
“After they escape from North Korea, defectors don’t spend more than a week in Yanji,” he said.
Chinese authorities have offered rewards of up to 3,000 yuan [U.S. $456] to Chinese nationals and resident ethnic Koreans who report North Korean defectors, sources said, and many defectors now try to live as far away from the border as possible.
Recently, many have settled in Qingdao and Shanghai, or even as far south as Guangzhou.
Reported by Jae Wan Noh for RFA’s Korean service. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written in English by Richard Finney.