Last year, China surprised the world when it allowed 43 North Korean defectors to quickly leave the country after they had slipped into the South Korean consulate and U.N. refugee offices in Beijing. Some people thought Beijing was easing its longtime policy of treating North Korean defectors as economic migrants and deporting them. However, China has since tightened its efforts to keep North Korean refugees out, apparently to avoid being embarrassed over the issue during the coming Olympic games in Beijing. VOA's Luis Ramirez, who has traced the trail of refugees from North Korea to Thailand, has more in this second report of a four-part series.
The desperation of North Korean refugees made world headlines a few years ago. TV audiences around the globe saw several refugees forcing their way into foreign embassies in Beijing, seeking passage to third countries.
But most defectors avoid publicity. Hiding from police, facing imprisonment and even death if they are forced back home, North Korean refugees in China have few options.
One 34-year-old woman says she was sold into slavery after crossing the border. "In that house, I was cleaning the stools and urine of a grandfather. I took care of him. I had a chance to run away but I did not," she said. "The family told me, 'It is useless to treat North Korean people well. Even if we treat them well, they still run away.' Then I replied to them, 'Why do you think North Korean people are bad?' I then said, 'I will wait until you let me go.' "
Feeling trapped, she was overwhelmed with despair. "Finally, I got some poison. They found I almost killed myself and they took me to the hospital, where they [pumped out] my stomach," she said. To avoid further problems, her captors let her go.
In the Chinese border city of Dandong, the misery and backwardness of North Korea set against images of China's rapid development is a tourist attraction for boatloads of Chinese.
Boats make regular trips around the Friendship Bridge connecting the two countries. The two countries remain friends, but many do not see it as a relationship built on much respect.
Beijing's economic reforms have brought prosperity to China. Many Chinese view North Korea as backward, and do not understand why it has not shed the socialist policies that have kept it poor.
The Chinese recall the days before market reforms brought greater wealth to their country. In those days, many poor mainlanders dreamed of migrating to Hong Kong, then a booming British colony.
"It is just like older people say: When you look at our Dandong area from the North Korean side, it is just like when we used to look at Hong Kong from mainland China," said a souvenir vendor. Pins with images of leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-Il - sacred to North Koreans - are for sale here as cheap souvenirs.
Up the road along the border fence is a sinister reminder of what the people on the other side face. From behind the fence, a North Korean man asks for Chinese money to buy food. He signaled to the reporter to put away the camera. Being seen on film talking to foreigners, he indicates, could get him killed.
A Chinese man on this side of the fence explains Chinese tourists regularly come here to toss coins across the border and then delight in watching the North Koreans scramble to pick them up.
But not everyone in China sees the North Koreans and their poverty as a source of amusement or profit. Some people, many of them ethnic Koreans, risk their lives to help them.
One Chinese Korean farmer said he has taken in many people over the years, at great risk of being himself arrested. "When they came across the river, they appeared to be poorer than us. They asked to stay in our houses and were willing to work for free, just to have a place to sleep and have something to eat," the farmer said.
Chinese villagers along the border say police offer rewards of about $12 to those who turn in North Korean defectors. They are then deported and imprisoned back in North Korea.
China's government is not sympathetic toward the defectors, fearing a strain on its relations with its communist allies in Pyongyang. Beijing classifies the defectors as undocumented migrants, not refugees. As a result, many try to head south to Thailand. From there they hope to make the jump to a final destination - usually South Korea or the United States.