North Korean Refugees Now – Part 2: Crackdowns in China

"Pyun-hwa," a North Korean orphan in our care, was instructed by her family to lie to the Chinese police when they came looking for her mother, a North Korean refugee. But when five-year-old Pyun-hwa came face-to-face with the authorities, frightening men who demanded the little girl to give them the whereabouts of her mother, terrified Pyung-hwa let the secret slip. She told the police that her mother was hiding in the shed out back. Pyun-hwa’s mother has not been heard from since.

Stories like this circulate and hold the tens of thousands of North Korean refugees in China in a vice grip of fear. Each year new stories like these surface and striking terror in the refugee population. China has been hunting down North Korean refugees since they adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward them shortly after the famine decimated North Korea in the 1990s.

At times China has been more aggressive about these crackdowns, at times they have been less so. But the effect of such prolonged, persistent efforts has forced many North Korean refugees to make a hard decision: to stay or leave.

China’s crackdowns have been focused on regions near their border with North Korea. They still regularly occur. This year, our workers in China reported a crackdown so severe in a small border district that there are hardly any North Koreans left in the area. As a result, thousands of North Korean refugee children have been orphaned.

In this town, a woman who was receiving aid from Crossing Borders was so desperate, she took matters into her own hands. This woman purchased an ID from another woman in her village, told the authorities she had plastic surgery and was able to get a passport with a new picture, her own. As she boarded the plane for South Korea, her first plane ride, she took a picture of herself to tell her husband she had made it.

She is in South Korea today.

China rarely takes quick measures to solve a social problem. They tend to take a long approach to these issues. In the case of their refugee “problem,” they have taken the strategy of moving against not only refugees, but the networks who help them.

As we have shared, China denied the visas and deported about a thousand foreign workers who supposedly had ties with North Korean support networks last year. To our understanding, China is now expanding their efforts to eliminate the population of North Korean refugees in their borders. A method they have chosen is to dismantle many organizations serving these refugees.

As they stop organizations like these, vital resources for North Korean refugees, Chinese authorities are destroying many hopes the North Korean refugees in China have for survival.

As a result of this growing aggression from the authorities, North Korean refugees have gone inland where it is harder to find them. Though China’s plan has worked to an extent, it has not eliminated the refugee population. Many North Korean refugees have chosen to stay, learned to blend in, and have forged a life for themselves.