Steve Kim went to China to make money.
The furniture dealer from Huntington, N.Y., sniffed an opportunity to manufacture colonial reproductions at a fraction of the cost for export to the U.S. market. He had no interest in politics or human rights.
That was until one Sunday morning, when he ran into a couple of North Korean defectors at the church he attended in Guangdong province. They were thin with bad skin and shabby clothing and had the terrified, needy look of stray kittens. Kim ended up hiring one of them, finding apartments for others and arranging for them to seek asylum in South Korea.
Soon, more North Koreans found their way to his doorstep.
"How could I not help?" said Kim, who emigrated to the United States from South Korea with his parents as a young man and became a U.S. citizen in 1975. "I'm human, after all."
Kim ended up spending four years in Chinese prison for violations of Article 318: "making arrangements for other persons to illegally cross the national frontier." Released in September, he is one of a dozen foreigners who have received stiff sentences for helping North Koreans.
The arrests have been part of China's relentless crackdown on North Koreans who cross over in an attempt to defect to South Korea. High barbed-wire fences have been erected along the banks of the Tumen River, which runs along part of China's border with North Korea. Recently, the Chinese have started blocking routes leading out of China as well, installing ultrared heat and motion sensors in the desert terrain near the border with Mongolia.
Mobile telephone calls and e-mails among activists are monitored, and informants pose as defectors to infiltrate safe houses where North Koreans are hiding. Those caught are repatriated to North Korea.
Human rights advocates are now pushing China for at least a truce in honor of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing in August. The treatment of North Koreans, along with concerns that China is not doing enough to stop the bloodshed in the Darfur region of ally Sudan, threatens to shadow the Games.
"These Olympics are just about the most important international event in Chinese history. If they want to brag to the world about what a safe and stable place China is, they have to do something for the refugees," said Do Hee-youn, who runs a fund for North Korean defectors in Seoul.
As many as 100,000 North Koreans are thought to be hiding in China, including dozens in foreign embassies and at the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing.
The North Koreans have won sympathy in foreign capitals, from Tokyo to Washington, especially among Christian groups. Activists held nearly simultaneous demonstrations Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 in front of all the Chinese consular offices in the U.S., calling for a boycott of the Olympics over the North Korean issue.
There are some indications that the Chinese are paying heed. In December, they unexpectedly released Yu Sang-jun, a defector who had become an activist. Caught guiding refugees to the border, he was held for less than four months, a short stay compared with the years-long sentences doled out to others who did the same.
In Seoul, activists say that 40 North Koreans who have sought asylum in embassies in Beijing might soon be given safe passage by the Chinese government to leave for South Korea. The South Korean Constitution gives all North Koreans the right of citizenship.
At a recent briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, responding to a question about North Korean refugees, said, "Our position is clear and consistent. These people come to China for financial reasons. They are illegal migrants, not refugees."
North Koreans started pouring into China in the mid-1990s, fleeing the famine and repression of one of the world's most totalitarian countries. Since it is impossible to cross the heavily mined demilitarized zone leading to South Korea, the 850-mile border with China is the only practical escape route from North Korea.
China, which still supports its old Communist ally, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, works closely with his government's security services to catch defectors. North Korea sends those caught to labor camps.
Many North Korean defectors try to reach Thailand, Vietnam or Mongolia, all of which are more sympathetic. But the "underground railroad" bringing these people to safety is under increasing pressure from the Chinese government.
"Wherever you are in China, the police can barge in at any minute and arrest you," said Kim Young-mi, a 30-year-old North Korean who spent four years living undercover in China before arriving in South Korea last year.
Yu Sang-jun, the recently released activist, was arrested in September at a train station in the northern Chinese city of Ulanhot as he escorted three refugees to Mongolia. In an interview in Seoul, he recalled that plainclothes Chinese police had been tracking his little group for days before they took them into custody. The three defectors were immediately whisked away, presumably to be repatriated to North Korea.
"I never got to say goodbye to them. It happened so fast," said Yu, 45, who escaped from an agricultural cooperative near the city of Chongjin, North Korea, in 1998. "I want to die myself when I think what may have become of them."
Yu lost his wife and a 4-year-old son in the North Korean famine. His older son, 12, died of dehydration attempting the difficult desert crossing from China to Mongolia. Yu has since devoted his life to helping North Korean defectors, traveling back and forth to China on his South Korean passport.
Christian activists in Seoul had lobbied hard for Yu's release and were delighted when he arrived safely home. But the activists were not counting on his release signaling a change of course by the Chinese.
"At best, they'll put on a public relations show for the Olympics," activist Tim Peters said. "But it won't be anything more than smoke and mirrors."