Yanji, China (CNSNews.com) - The slow exodus of North Koreans from their impoverished homeland is posing increasingly vexing diplomatic problems for China and South Korea, as they grapple with their Stalinist neighbor's decay.
"Honestly, most families [in North Korea] can't really eat well," said a 34-year-old North Korean woman, now in China, who hopes eventually to reach South Korea.
"When I came to China, I learned that people in North Korea eat worse than a pig in China," added the woman, who asked that only her surname -- Moon -- be used.
Moon currently holds a low-profile restaurant job in this dusty Chinese city. Yanji, which has a large population of ethnic Koreans, is located one hour from the North Korean border.
The mix of political oppression and brutal economics in North Korea has left defectors on the wrong side of the fence in the view of the Chinese government. The issue has set South Korea and China at loggerheads while defectors and human rights activists contend that humanitarian concerns have been abandoned.
Beijing sees the North Koreans as illegal economic migrants, subject to repatriation. It has, however, allowed groups of defectors who sought shelter at foreign embassies in China to go to South Korea, via third countries.
South Korea saw a record 1,890 defectors from the North arrive in 2004.
But the government in Seoul is worried about the flow, fearing the situation is jeopardizing its efforts to improve relations with Pyongyang.
Starting this year, South Korea slashed settlement money given to North Korean refugees by two-thirds - to around $9,000.
The defectors have often used the settlement money to finance the escape of relatives through activist networks and human brokers.
"It is not desirable for anyone to organize defections, intentionally bringing people out of North Korea," Unification Minister Chung Dong-young told Korean media recently.
Opposition lawmakers have accused President Roh Moo-hyun's liberal administration of ignoring refugees' plight in order to improve ties with the North. They have also focused attention on cases of South Koreans believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents.
Last month, four representatives of the conservative opposition Grand National Party traveled to Yanji to investigate refugee issues as well as the alleged abduction of a South Korean pastor by North Korean agents in China four years ago.
When the lawmakers tried to hold a press conference at a Beijing hotel, however, Chinese men presumed to be security officials attempted to hustle them out, claiming they did not have proper permission to hold a press event.
"The Chinese government and people have shown the greatest humanitarianism and made the utmost efforts on this [defector] issue," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said shortly after the incident.
For China, the hotel incident was another unwanted bit of bad publicity over North Korean refugees. Its growing economic ties with South Korea and the U.S. make the refugees a sticky foreign policy issue.
Many U.S. lawmakers feel strongly about the situation, and President Bush last year signed into law the North Korea Human Rights Act, designed to promote human rights and help refugees fleeing from the country.
"China is trying to tread this very fine line between its past commitments and its future expectations," said John Feffer, a visiting scholar at Stanford University and author of the book North Korea-South Korea: U.S. Politics and the Korean Peninsula.
"The refugee issue really pushes China," Feffer added.
Human rights and civic groups estimate between 200,000 and 300,000 North Koreans are living in China, having crossed over the relatively poorly-guarded border between the two communist countries.
Although China signed the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, China has opted to send many of the North Koreans back home, where campaigners say they face serious punishment, or death.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the agency was hamstrung.
"We can't force countries to comply," said Jennifer Pagonis in a telephone interview from Geneva. "We always rely on a country's goodwill."
"We are particularly concerned when these people are returned to North Korea against their will."
The UNHCR had access to the border area between China and North Korea in the 1990s, but the Chinese government no longer allows it to visit. One UNHCR representative continues to work in Beijing, she said.
A dangerous journey
On the Chinese side of the Tumen River border with North Korea, elderly ethnic Koreans who run bamboo boats for tourists said refugees were easy to spot because their clothing style was different and they did not fit in with their Chinese counterparts.
Most people in this small city are openly sympathetic to their very poor North Korean neighbors, who occasionally breach the shallow waters of the Tumen River to reach China.
Once the refugees are in China, human rights activists have employed various techniques to get them out again - high-profile dashes using ladders to climb into embassy compounds in Beijing; desert drives to the Mongolian border; risky land routes through Burma, Thailand and Vietnam.
"New routes are being looked for all the time," said Tim Peters, the founder of Helping Hands Korea, a nongovernmental organization that raises funds for clandestine operations to move refugees out of China.
"Old routes get discovered and get shut down."
Border guards and police are often bribed to look the other way.
Often, hard decisions must be made depending on the defector's profile and risk of imminent capture, Peters explained.
He said many South Koreans seemed to regard defectors as a costly social nuisance.
Peters commented that if in the future, the international community is remembered as doing more than South Korea has when it comes to helping refugees from the North, "that's going to be a horrible scar on the consciences of their [South Koreans'] grandchildren."
(Translator Joanne V. Moon contributed to this report.)
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