Several thousand North Koreans every year risk their lives by taking a circuitous 2,500-mile journey that begins in northeastern China — just across the border from the North — and ends in a Southeast Asian country, usually Thailand or Cambodia, where defectors seek asylum and resettlement in South Korea. Along this “underground railroad” across rural China, defectors sleep in shelters or abandoned buildings, helped by religious activists and brokers. They hop from trains to buses, hoping to avoid routine checkpoints where officials ask for identification. Their main goals while in China: Don’t draw attention. Don’t get caught by Chinese authorities.
With protesters showing up almost daily at the Chinese Embassy in Seoul to decry the arrests, the underground railroad itself has recently come under the spotlight.
That attention, most non-governmental organizations say, is the surest way to pressure China on a damaging policy. China, they say, is ignoring its international treaty commitments by sending back those who face torture. So to spread the word, protesters and celebrities gather outside the Chinese Embassy here holding signs that say “Save My Friend.” A conservative parliamentarian even went on a hunger strike.
But for those who help defectors along the underground railroad, a necessary protest also feels like a dangerous one that might backfire in the short-term. They fear that China, under increasing international pressure, will treat defectors not with greater leniency but with a strict crackdown. China’s foreign ministry says it “opposes” the attempt to “internationalize and politicize” the refugee issue.
Those who operate underground railroads say they see no immediate evidence that China has launched a crackdown in the wake of the protests. But they anticipate one and have ordered defectors currently in China to stay put and remain indoors, perhaps for the next two or three months. The railroad is frozen, they say.
“Activists are being very cautious,” said Son Jung-hun, a Seoul-based activist who says he helps between 50 to 60 defectors annually move through China. “This could trigger the Chinese government to have a firmer stance on their policy.”
In normal times, activists say, Chinese officials, particularly at the local level, often yield to compromise after arresting defectors, and money matters far more than policy. Such officials can be flexible so long as the cases don’t land on the radar of the North Koreans or their own bosses.