Refugees fleeing oppression, hunger and privation in North Korea have left their homeland in massive numbers in recent years. Many are in hiding in China. Over the past year, some North Korean refugees have forced their way into embassies or consulates in Chinese cities, drawing international attention to their plight.
Most observers agree the North Korean refugee problem is serious, because of the large numbers of people involved, and because the situation shows no promise of improvement in the near term.
Jack Rendler, vice chairman of the United States Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, says an estimated 400,000-500,000 North Koreans have left their country for China over the last decade. Chinese police regularly round up people, and send them back to North Korea. At any one time, he says, as many as 150,000 North Korean refugees are living in hiding inside China.
Mr. Rendler says North Koreans who choose to leave in search of food do so because they are desperate. He says they suffer, not only at home, but also when they reach China.
"North Koreans have no freedom of movement, according to the government, and so they are pursued by border guards on their side and across the Tumen River, where most of them make their crossing," he said. "And then they are pursued by Chinese [police], in China. And there are now bounties on the heads of North Korean refugees, so that the people who have in the past accepted them with open arms, now can't be trusted to provide them assistance."
Mr. Rendler says women face the harshest treatment in prison camps, where most repatriated North Koreans are sent.
"We have reliable reports of pregnant women in these detention centers being subjected to forced abortion by the prison guards, beaten until they give birth and then the babies killed as a way of making sure, we assume, that the North Korean bloodline is not contaminated by any woman who may have become pregnant by a Chinese father," said Mr. Rendler.
China, a long-time ally of North Korea, has been put in a difficult position by North Koreans who have forced their way into foreign embassies and consulates in Chinese cities in hopes of avoiding repatriation and gaining transit to South Korea. Under international pressure, China has allowed most of them to go to South Korea.
Many of the asylum bids at foreign missions were helped by international activists intent on bringing the North Korean refugee issue to the world's attention.
"I believe in a silent collapse, like in East Germany," said one such activist, German doctor Norbert Vollertsen, who draws a parallel to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. "It started with a flood of refugees to the West German Embassy in Prague [and] in Hungary," he continued, "and then, it created the collapse of East Germany, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. And, therefore, we had the idea to occupy Western embassies in Beijing with North Korean refugees, also in order to create such a flood of refugees in order to destabilize the North Korean government."
Dr. Vollertsen said, initially, most of those fleeing were ordinary workers and their families. But recently there have also been high-ranking scientists, weapons experts and military.
Jack Rendler does not think a dramatic rise in the numbers of refugees, even if they included high-ranking officials, would lead to collapse in Pyongyang.
"I think that the elite in Pyongyang, the leadership, the government, is as firmly in control as it has ever been," he explained. "I think, economically, they're obviously in trouble, and they can't feed their people. But politically, and socially, culturally, I don't know of any government in the world that has more control over its people than North Korea does."
Kathleen Newland, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute, agreed, saying the refugee outflow in Europe was sudden, and put immediate pressure on East European governments. She says North Korea has a firm grip, and is not susceptible to that kind of popular pressure.
"And another big difference between the Eastern European scenario and the one that we might imagine here is that Western European countries were eager to receive the refugees, and to give a push toward political change in Eastern Europe," she added. "China has not shown that same kind of willingness to sort of play along with these forces, and, therefore, I think, if the North Koreans were more inclined to crack down than to crack, that the Chinese would probably be cooperating with them, rather than opposing them."
An official at the Chinese Embassy in Washington dismisses comparisons of the North Korean and East German refugee situations. First Secretary Sun Weide said Chinese police would be able to effectively control the border, if the number of North Koreans trying to cross into China suddenly rises. Mr. Sun said international groups are the root of the problem.
"Some non-governmental organizations and also some so-called religious and human rights groups, they have deliberately been involved in organizing the illegal smuggling of people," said Mr. Sun. "So we call upon them to stop this practice, so that the illegal immigration issue of the DPRK people can be solved.
The World Food Program and other aid organizations have warned of the possibility of renewed famine in North Korea, as Pyongyang engages in a diplomatic showdown with the United States over the nuclear weapons issue.
Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute pointed out that Washington has said it will not use food aid as a political instrument. But the United States and other countries have cut off fuel shipments to North Korea, and that has hampered food production. Jack Rendler, of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said that as the situation worsens, he expects more North Koreans may try to leave their country in search of food.