International aid groups working in northeast China said authorities have intensified a crackdown on illegal North Korean migrants, and are also targeting Korean-Chinese and foreigners who help the migrants. They have said the crackdown is in apparent reaction to the spate of asylum attempts by North Koreans at foreign diplomatic missions in China.
International aid workers have said Chinese police have conducted security sweeps through workplaces, video parlors, tea rooms, buses, and homes in the Yanbian area of Jilin Province - searching for unregistered ethnic Koreans. They have rounded up illegal migrants and sent them back across the border to North Korea.
The exact number of North Koreans deported in recent weeks is not known, but aid workers say it is likely in the hundreds. China has an agreement with Pyongyang to return any North Korean migrants, but aid workers say the latest crackdown began in mid-March, after 25 North Koreans rushed into the Spanish embassy in Beijing seeking political asylum. In recent weeks, at least 38 North Koreans who sought asylum at diplomatic missions in China, including those at the Spanish embassy, have been allowed to travel to South Korea.
Within the last week, four North Koreans entered the South Korean consular office in Beijing in hopes of being allowed to go to Seoul as refugees. South Korea has rejected China's demand that it turn over the asylum seekers, and the two sides are holding talks about the impasse. During the 1990's, as North Korea was hit by severe drought and floods, thousands of North Koreans poured into Jilin province in search of food, medicine and money. The Yanbian autonomous prefecture in Jilin has a significant Korean-Chinese population - nearly 50 percent of the local officials are ethnic Koreans.
Koreans on both sides of the border have traditionally interacted, according to Kathleen Newland with the Migration Policy Institute - a research and policy organization in Washington. So when the famine hit, Ms. Newland said it was natural for North Koreans to seek help in China.
"Going across the border into China is part of the survival strategies of a lot of North Korean families - having one member go over and get food, or work for a while in order to get food, or simply remain there until times are a little easier back at home," she said.
One aid worker, who spoke with VOA on the condition he not be identified, describes the North Korean migrants as poor, sick, ill-fed, and vulnerable. He said most are desperate, but sometimes one sees a healthy person or family - probably members of the North Korean elite looking for better alternatives. Men get temporary labor jobs inside China or seasonal farm work, and he said, some women end up in brothels or other sex-related work.
Over the last six years, China occasionally sent North Koreans back home, but for the most part, it has allowed international aid groups to respond to the migrants' humanitarian needs. Many church-related or other non-governmental organizations from Europe, the United States, and South Korea have been helping North Koreans in China - providing food, medical aid, and sometimes prosteletizing.
But Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington, said some activist groups want to do more than just help starving people. He said they want to call attention to the way the refugees are treated by China, and still others want to find ways to effect change in North Korea. Mr. Flake said some of those groups have encouraged, even organized, the North Koreans who have rushed into embassies demanding asylum.
"You can tell they're coordinated by the fact there are news cameras ready and waiting for these events to happen. Generally news cameras don't just hang around the Japanese consulate or the Spanish consulate, or the American consulate, if you will. Those are the types of groups of people who are not necessarily representative of those working on the border but those who have had contact dealing with North Korea both inside and outside," he said.
Some aid groups have criticized the activists' tactics, saying such publicity is prompting China to crack down on North Koreans who are already suffering enough.
They said North Koreans who are deported face the likelihood of imprisonment or worse. One food aid group said it has been approached by activists who wanted the group to help transport North Korean migrants to cities further inside China. The group refused, saying it only wants to carry out humanitarian work and not get involved in political action.
The aid workers said the political asylum campaign has also prompted China to scrutinize more closely the Korean-Chinese residents who work with foreign humanitarian groups in Yanbian. In addition, they said at least four foreign aid workers have been picked up for questioning by Chinese officials. They include a Korean-American and three South Koreans. It is not known if they are still being held.
As the food situation has stabilized in North Korea, aid workers said the number of people crossing into China has declined from the peak in 1997 and 1998. But aid workers estimate that as many as 100,000 North Koreans are still hiding inside China.