News/China: "People traders" cash in on plight of fleeing North Koreans

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Subject: News/China: "People traders" cash in on plight of fleeing North Koreans
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Mon Jul 12 1999 - 15:32:52 EDT


"People traders" cash in on plight of fleeing North Koreans

YANJI, China, July 8 (AFP) - "I am from North Korea. I'm hungry. Please
help," a 15-year-old boy wearing a ragged red T-shirt and shorts implored
as he tugged on the sleeve of a South Korean tourist.

Sympathetic, the woman opens her purse and gives him a 20 yuan (2.4 dollar)
note. The barefooted urchin runs off, and immediately another boy thrusts
his hand out, repeating the first boy's plea as if it were some sort of a
mantra.

The tourist hands over a further 10 yuan note, oblivious to a local tourist
guide who slowly shakes his head in dissapproval.

Gangs of famished youngsters are operated by unscrupulous entrepreneurs
who, like Fagan in Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist", use them to extract
cash from visitors in return for a minim of food and somewhere to sleep at
night.

The children came to this border town to escape one of the world's great
humanitarian disasters, a famine which some sources say has left up to
three million people dead and at least 100,000 as refugees in neighbouring
China.

North Koreans, desperate to find any means of survival, risk their lives
every day crossing the border near here to enter China's Jilin province in
the hope of finding food and someone willing to help.

Defectors have said North Korean border guards are ordered to shoot on
sight people illegally crossing the border, although many hungry soldiers
willingly take bribes to turn a blind eye.

Many of the 350,000-strong community of ethnic Koreans here have made
enormous personal sacrifices to help the North Koreans who have fled to
China, Pyongyang's last major ally.

But a crackdown by Chinese authorities in recent months to avoid an even
bigger onslaught of refugees, has made it extremely difficult for
Chinese-born Koreans to hide and shelter them.

Fines for helping refugees or those who cross the border on a short
foraging mission, range between 500 to 3,000 yuan (60 to 360 dollars), a
fortune in this remote agricutural area.

Despite the danger, the mushrooming numbers of refugees has turned into a
business opportunity for many locals here who have devised ways of making a
profit from the plight of North Korean women and children.

The children play on the sympathies of South Koreans and are often members
of begging teams run by "child brokers."

"This has turned into a business for some people who take advantage of the
children," a tour guide said. "The children usually make no money from the
deal.

"They are taken in by these ethnic Koreans, fed and given a place to sleep
at night. But in the afternoon, they are sent out to popular South Korean
tourist spots," a local Korean woman named Yoon said.

They are often fed by visitors, horrifed at the sight of the pitifully thin
children. A 15-year-old can be so small he appears to be no older than
eight or nine.

Some of the children are not even North Korean, locals say. They are local
ethnic Koreans used by the child brokers to cash in on the lucrative source
of income.

"For the children, the main thing on their minds is food. Given something
to fill their stomachs and a place to go at night is usually more than
enough for them," Yoon says.

Other brokers peddle women. Girls and some older women are married off to
men in the Chinese countryside who find it hard to find a wife.

Girls are usually sold for between 5,000 and 7,000 yuan, an ethnic Korean
businessman, identified as Kim, said.

Love is not an issue. The women are grateful for the opportunity of
receiving free food and shelter, and of avoiding their worst terror: being
returned to North Korea to face arrest or even execution, he said.

Some are sold to brokers by their own families to allow other family
members to survive.

"But the sad thing is that North Korean women then have to spend the rest
of their lives in hiding as they will always be illegal aliens," he said.


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