Refugees Could Undo Kim

Mitchell Koss is a television news and documentary producer in Los Angeles. His work has appeared on PBS, ABC, MTV, CNN and the "Today" show.

In July, I drove the entire border between China and North Korea, a trip of about 880 miles that took 36 hours of actual driving time, some of it on nice highways, some on dirt roads. The goal was to meet North Korean refugees and see the conditions that they have been living under since China intensified its crackdown on them last year.

But in another sense, I was also seeing some of the options for dealing with North Korea -- options that might not be on the table as representatives of the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea sit down this month in Beijing with North Korean diplomats to try to negotiate an end to that nation’s nuclear program.

My journey started in the Chinese city of Dandong, on the western end of the border. From a room in the Zhong Lian Hotel, you can look across the Yalu River and wonder at the dangerous mystery on the other bank, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. After the sun sets, the mystery deepens. Dandong, a booming city of huge buildings and 2 million people, is ablaze with light, a testament to China’s new and astounding vitality. In contrast, Sinuiju, the North Korean town across the water, is as dark as a secret.


But North Korea really isn’t much of a puzzle. Life there is rigid and harsh. Its leader doesn’t play by the rules. He says he has nukes.

The real mystery is what we can do about it. The U.S. Army in South Korea estimates that a nonnuclear war with North Korea would result in a minimum of 1 million casualties, most of them South Korean civilians, many of them within the first day. As President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have stated, force is not the preferred option. That leaves negotiations -- or China.

China is North Korea’s lifeline. China sends aid and permits such legitimate trade as the North Koreans can muster. Beneath my windows in the Zhong Lian Hotel in Dandong, a bridge spanned the Yalu. Each day around dawn, which in summer comes very early in the far eastern portion of this giant nation with only one time zone, a short train made its way across to North Korea.

North Korea lets the train in, but it bans Chinese tourists. So the closest I could get was on the tourist boats that ply the river to within 50 feet of its shores all day long. During my first boat trip, the skinny North Koreans on the other side ignored us. During the second trip, from a point about an hour out of town, aggravated North Korean children feigned shooting at us. Back on the Chinese side, vendors offer the chance to be photographed with North Korea as a backdrop.

If average Chinese people along the border see North Korea as an exotic and eccentric neighbor, the Chinese government views it differently. North Korea is a danger to world stability, but it’s also a buffer that keeps U.S. and South Korean forces from the banks of the Yalu. This, if you remember, was the goal of China’s entry into the Korean War.

Whatever has gone on in confidence between the American and Chinese diplomats, it seems safe to conclude that the U.S. isn’t able to persuade China to cut its lifeline to North Korea and thereby precipitate a collapse of the regime. To those searching for a nonmilitary weapon for regime change in Pyongyang, as some U.S. leaders are, that leaves only the North Korean refugees.


Last year, the United Nations estimated that there were hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees living in China’s border regions, trying to blend in with the millions of ethnic Korean Chinese who live there. The refugees were driven out by a famine that began in the late 1990s and killed an estimated 2 million North Koreans. They came to China because they could. The border between North Korea and South Korea is the most heavily militarized zone in the world, with a million soldiers facing one another. But the border between North Korea and China is largely unguarded, defined by two rivers, the Yalu and the Toumen. At points, the Toumen is about as wide as the Santa Monica Freeway.

Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) are sponsoring a bill to allow North Korean refugees to come to the U.S., thereby inspiring other nations to do likewise. The idea is that, like a puncture in a balloon, this opening would quickly deflate North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s cruel and crazy regime. It is an idea with a precedent.

In the summer of 1989, under tremendous pressure from its population to liberalize, Hungary became the first Warsaw Pact nation to begin lifting the Iron Curtain. Its government began permitting East Germans to traverse its territory and escape to freedom in Austria. After some 300,000 East Germans had exercised that option, the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. This lesson has not been lost on Brownback and Kennedy, or the Chinese government.

And that’s the sticking point. The government of China seems to view North Korean refugees in the same way that the U.S. government views Haitian refugees. That is, if we make it easy for them to get here, pretty soon the whole country will try to emigrate to our soil.

In the early years of the famine, North Korean refugees were permitted to exist in China much the way that undocumented people in Los Angeles are. Then, in the spring of 2002, activists staged a series of events at which refugees rushed consulates and embassies in China, gaining worldwide attention and infuriating the Chinese government. In the resulting crackdown, North Korean refugees were driven almost entirely underground. Those who offered them assistance were subject to arrest.

These days, assistance to North Korean refugees in China seems to come mainly from Korean American and South Korean churches and Christian groups. These groups send missionaries to China’s border regions and pay local Korean-Chinese to shelter refugees. In one town, we went to a safe house and met an old woman who’d crossed the frozen river from North Korea in February. She now lives in a shed and considers herself to be far better off. “In China, I have food,” she said. Later, I was taken to a clearing in a forest where eight adult refugees and a baby had been gathered for us by the Korean-Chinese who was sheltering them. The refugees lived in shelters made of branches and plastic sheeting. The woman with the baby told us that she had six other children back in North Korea, some hers, some belonging to a sister who had starved to death. The woman said she intended to return to care for them as soon as she could earn 100 yuan -- roughly $12.50.


Even if China doesn’t agree to let the U.S. grant visas to North Korean refugees, there is one other thing that China might be passively doing to undermine Kim’s regime: setting an example of prosperity that spills south across the border into North Korea, just as the refugees spill northward. It almost happened in the summer of 2002, when North Korea declared a special economic zone in Sinuiju across from Dandong and appointed a Chinese entrepreneur to run it. But apparently, the Chinese government wasn’t informed. The entrepreneur ended up on trial for corruption, and the zone seems to be languishing.

But there’s still hope. Each morning in Dandong, as I jogged past brand-new apartment blocks and brand-new office buildings, and thousands of Chinese of all ages out doing their morning exercises, I had to remind myself that 25 years ago there wasn’t much difference between these people and the North Koreans. China’s new leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, created a “special economic zone” in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong. Maybe if force and negotiations and pulling the plug all prove unworkable, the best bet is progress.