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North Korea Refugees Remain Issue for China - 2001-09-05

Although Chinese President Jiang Zemin has ended his visit to North Korea both countries are still waging a battle along their border against North Korean refugees. Over the past several months, China has forcibly repatriated refugees in what some aid groups are calling the most severe crackdown yet undertaken in the region.

A rock jutting out from the Tumen river shows where the water is shallow enough for a North Korean teenager to cross the hundred or so meters to China. Mr. Joo stands on the riverbank in his soiled rubber boots, and points out where he crossed over here on a summer night three years ago. He says he fled North Korea because his parents had died and he needed to find food and money. Now 18-years-old, Mr. Joo is almost a man, but his body is thin and stunted, making him appear only 11. He says he used to roam the Chinese border town of Tumen with a group of other North Korean teenagers, but now they've all disappeared.

So far, Mr. Joo has been able to evade the authorities, but over the past several months, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of North Koreans in China have been arrested and sent home as part of a harsh government crackdown on refugees.

Police have been systematically searching houses in the heavily Korean-populated areas of northeastern China, fining those who harbor refugees, rewarding those who report them.

A Chinese taxi driver in Yanji, an industrial city in Jilin province, says he saw a dozen North Korean children and adults forced into a police van on a recent security sweep. "The refugees don't speak Chinese," he says, "so it's easy for the police to tell if they're North Korean."

Beijing says the tens of thousands of North Koreans crossing the border are economic migrants, who should not be treated as refugees. Yet, it does not allow U.N. monitors to visit the border area to evaluate their condition.

The recent arrests are part of a national anti-crime campaign called "Strike Hard." Red cloth banners have been draped throughout border towns, written in both Chinese and Korean. They say: "Sternly crack down on all forms of criminal behavior and preserve social stability."

Before the Strike Hard campaign, Korean-Chinese churches were a major source of food, shelter and clothing for refugees. Communities here are heavily Christian, with most services conducted entirely in Korean, and many churches funded by South Koreans. But an ethnic Korean priest says that churches have been warned by the government not to provide refugee aid.

A church worker in Yanji says, they used to get more than 10 refugees coming to them every day, openly seeking help. He says the North Koreans would do the rounds of churches here and in the far northern Heilongjiang province, begging for money so they could eat. But now, only a few come by. "We still help them on the sly," he says, "but we have to be very careful."

Residents here say Chinese authorities sometimes collaborate with North Korean agents to hunt down refugees. Rajiv Narayan of the London-based human rights group Amnesty International says that North Korea often punishes refugees after they have been sent home. Mr. Narayan says penalties vary, but include imprisonment and sometimes even execution. "We have consistently been expressing our concern about the present conditions and the torture and ill-treatment of those who have been repatriated back to North Korea," he said.

Many Chinese here sympathize with the refugees, and try to protect them by giving money, or marrying the women. But some support the crackdown for getting rid of undesirable vagrants.

A Chinese woman enjoying a meal says that before the Strike Hard campaign, North Korean beggars were running all over the streets. But if you gave them money, she says, they'd use it to buy a Coke or go to a bar. She takes a bite of kimchi and says, "you don't see them much anymore since police began their house to house inspections."

At the border town of Tumen, the orphaned Mr. Joo loiters near a bridge to North Korea, his dirty face prematurely ravaged with worry. He says that he still counts on tourists who might give him money or something to eat. But fewer South Koreans are coming now that summer is ending. And today, they are nowhere to be seen; just a few Chinese peering through binoculars at the reclusive state across the river from them.