The Tumen River. Photo credit: Tony Yoo, bonza-is-free.blogspot.com
“I remember as a kid regularly seeing dead bodies float down the river here,” my guide, Mr Urm, mentioned casually. We were on the banks of the River Tumen, near Hunchun, and I had just asked whether many North Korean asylum seekers try to cross into China in this area. “They were all swollen – you know how corpses bloat after a little while?”
No, I didn’t know. I’ll take his word for it.
The Tumen River – the border between China, North Korea, and Russia further downstream – used to have more water and was a deadly hurdle for any North Korean wanting to escape their desperate situation. The strong current claimed bad and proficient swimmers alike, and those drowning victims are the ones a young Mr Urm and his mates saw.
These days the depth of water is much lower in the Tumen, but fleeing from North Korea is no less dangerous. Even if you’re fortunate enough to conquer the river without being detected by border patrol soldiers, China does not recognize North Korean escapees as refugees. If you’re caught here then repatriation is immediate, and a long and painful “reprogramming” prison term back “home” is a certainty.
Like many countries China encourages the prosecution of “illegal” aliens with a RMB500 (AU$75) public reward. That’s a week’s wage for the average Chinese townsfolk.
“There are stories of refugees setting up a new life here in China for years – getting married, having kids – then some neighbor dobs them in and they’re sent back,” my guide told me. He then proceeded to explained, with hand gestures, what sorts of torture they could expect.
In the city of Tumen, there is a detention center on the Chinese side to hold asylum seekers before repatriation. However, I couldn’t pluck up enough courage to ask a local for directions, lest they thought I was a weirdo or a spy. Apparently, even I have limits in seeking morbid “tourist” sites.
Being interested in North Korean affairs for many years, I had decent prior knowledge of what a typical escapee endures. But seeing the sites where it all happens, in windy -10C degree weather, aroused a new level of consciousness of the oppressed folk across the river. I’m not reading about their plight from a book anymore, I’m on the banks of the freezing river where the perilous journey for refuge actually begins.
The North Korean asylum seeker demographic is different to other refugee streams in the world in that the majority are women. Once in China they’re vulnerable to exploitation – many have been sold to Chinese farmers (as wives), bound as “hostesses” in seedy karaoke bars or even forced to concede their dignity for webcast on South Korean adult Internet sites. Yet like so many of the voiceless around the world, they’re forgotten.
There are those who have tried to publicise the awful situation faced by female North Korean asylum seekers. The two American journalists who were imprisoned by North Korea in 2009, pardoned only after a rescue mission from former President Bill Clinton, were inspecting this very same river, in the same area of China. They were working for a progressive television channel headed by Al Gore, and were compiling reports on the exploitation of female asylum seekers. They also had a guide, and there is speculation the guide collaborated with the North Korean soldiers to setup the journalists as a diplomatic “prize”. My contact who arranged the guide did ask me whether I was a writer or a reporter.
For more on the North Korean asylum seekers I highly recommend the book Nothing To Envy – Barbara Demick has written a wonderful account of the personal stories of six North Korean refugees. This article first appeared on Unattended Baggage travel blog, following Tony Yoo’s adventures wandering the world, jobless and homeless, this year.