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. China Ready For Refugee Rush After North Korean Nuclear Test

File photo: A North Korea refugee is caught trying to excape in South Korea.
by Robert J. Saiget
Tumen (AFP) China, Oct 15, 2006
In this border town in remote northeast China, 200 kilometers (120 miles) from where North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, locals are preparing for another influx of refugees from across the Tumen River. Up to 300,000 North Korean refugees are already believed to live illegally in the Yanbian region of Jilin province, many of whom risked torture, jailings or execution to escape starvation and oppression in their homeland.

"I think there will be more and more sneaking over the border, already a lot of North Koreans have come over," said a Tumen businessman named Piao.

"China has reduced its grain aid to North Korea and if the aid drops off more because of the nuclear test then there will be even less food to eat and more reason to flee."

Piao, 43, a Chinese-born ethnic Korean who worked to smuggle his grandmother out of North Korea in the 1990s, said many people like him are willing to help refugees to a better life in China despite Beijing's harsh repatriation policy, which has seen countless others sent back across the border to an often brutal fate.

During the autumn months when the water on the Tumen River is low, and in winter when it freezes, little groups of North Koreans -- mostly young people and increasingly female -- can be seen sneaking across unguarded areas.

"These young people are Koreans like us, how can we not help them?" Piao asked. "If they ask for help, we will give them food and help them locate their relatives over here.

"If we can locate their relatives, the relatives will reimburse us for the costs."

Half of the 2.18 million people in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture are ethnic Koreans, who like many of the Han Chinese still have relatives in North Korea.

Not all steal over the border. Others come via family visits that can last up to six months.

These too are becoming increasingly regular as impoverished North Koreans rely more and more on richer China, locals say.

For refugees, Yanbian's Christian groups are crucial in providing shelter and aid, both from state-approved and unsanctioned "underground" churches.

"Our church is state-sanctioned ... so sometimes it is difficult for us to help the refugees," said an ethnic Korean woman named Kim at Tumen Protestant Church, the biggest in the city.

"But we can't turn them away empty-handed and we will never turn them over to police."

At one of nearby Yanji city's many Christian churches, a minister called on Beijing to reverse a repatriation policy many see as unjust.

"The Chinese government should recognize these North Koreans as refugees and allow us to offer them aid in accordance with the United Nation's charter," the minister told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"We hope the government will show more leniency to these people now that North Korea has tested a nuclear bomb."

The UN charter says refugees have a right to stay in the country where they have sought refuge if they have a genuine and well-founded fear of persecution in their homeland.

Beijing's insistence that fleeing North Koreans are just seeking economic benefits has been key in allowing it to label them "illegal immigrants."

According to the minister, Yanbian's many unregistered church groups, which often get South Korean donations to help refugees, are becoming more active in helping North Koreans.

But members of such churches risk arrest, and blatant violation of Beijing's rules often ends up with the government imposing greater religious controls on the entire community, he said.

Nevertheless, even if the government does not welcome the refugees, Chinese nationals in the region seem to.

"The North Koreans are smart people, they are willing to work hard and they learn Chinese quickly," said a Chinese taxi driver surnamed Ji from Yanji.

"A lot of the North Korean women who come over the border can easily marry local Chinese men," said Ji, whose ethnic Chinese grand aunt visits every few years from her home in North Korea.

Although such marriages cannot be legally registered, fake identification papers can be procured, while local civil affairs departments can be paid to turn a blind eye, he said.

Those sent back to North Korea, or caught at the border, are destined for stints in labor camps, torture and even executions, according to international human rights groups.

"These people who come over are viewed (by Pyongyang) as traitors who are selling out their motherland," said an ethnic Korean medical worker called He in Kaishantun, a border village just south of Tumen.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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