TUMEN, China -- After five days of hiking in the biting cold, Lee Shanyu made her escape from the other bank of the Tumen River, where the tortured land of North Korea ends in a row of barren brown hills crusted with frost.
The promise of a bribe to North Korean border guards got her to the river's edge, she recalled, and a furtive midnight trot across the frozen water got her to this side of the border, where she said the police all seemed to be indoors trying to stay warm. And so in the middle of the night, pale, penniless and poorly clothed, another desperate North Korean had washed up in China.
"I decided to take a chance," Lee, 25, said to explain her risky flight across the border Feb. 20. "We have to do something," she added in an interview, fighting back tears as she recalled the mother she left behind. "We can't make a living in North Korea."
Every day, according to aid workers, a handful of North Koreans make the same decision, driven by hunger, want and oppression. The lucky ones find their way to South Korea, a few by sneaking into embassies in Beijing, some by traveling to neighboring countries to get help. Others get picked up by Chinese police and sent back. But many -- aid workers estimate the total is more than 200,000 -- end up working underground in China, trapped by their illegal status in menial labor, prostitution, concubinage or petty crime.
The daily trickle of asylum-seekers along China's 800-mile-long northeastern border goes a long way to explain why Beijing resists U.S. pressure to squeeze North Korea harder over its nuclear weapons program. Like U.S. officials, Chinese authorities want North Korea to abandon its effort to build a nuclear deterrent. But they also have been careful not to do anything that would further destabilize their neighbor's already decayed communist system.
Chinese specialists have said they suspect the Bush administration feels a period of chaos would be justified if it meant ending the quirky rule of Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, and so views the escapees as part of a welcome trend. But as a traditional ally, and the logical destination in case of tumult accompanying Kim's collapse, China has sought to discourage North Koreans from seeking refuge on its soil, lest the trickle turn into a flood.
Those who do sneak across have been refused asylum or any other legal status, making them prey for traffickers or unscrupulous employers. In periodic crackdowns, Chinese authorities have forcefully returned them to North Korea, where they face imprisonment or even execution for having fled.
In its annual human rights report, the U.S. government last Monday criticized China for barring the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees from this border area, where recently arrived North Koreans congregate. It charged that several thousand refugees were returned in 2004 and that many others were harassed and detained, while some Chinese and foreigners who tried to help were arrested.
Fleeing North Koreans have found that in many ways they fit into the landscape of this frigid border region about 650 miles northeast of Beijing, called the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Many Chinese citizens here are of Korean origin. Of the 350,000 people of Yanji, the prefecture's capital 20 miles southwest of here, more than 200,000 are ethnic Koreans; the Korean language is heard as much as Mandarin in shops and offices.
But China's system of government controls means aboveboard employment is difficult if not impossible without proper identification papers. As a result, aid workers and residents said, many North Korean women who flee end up as prostitutes in China. Many others, they said, are sold to poor farmers unable to find a bride. Not married legally, these women in effect are concubines, forced to stay available but out of sight in exchange for rudimentary living quarters and food.
Because it is easier to escape notice in the countryside, male escapees also frequently end up on farms in northeastern China, the aid workers said, doing chores for food and a place to sleep. Others work in restaurant kitchens in Yanji, Tumen or other towns, doing dishes or peeling vegetables for 50 cents a day plus room and board.
"They are just like Mexicans in the United States," said an aid worker who, like others involved in helping the escapees, declined to be identified for fear of encountering problems with Chinese authorities.
Driven by desperation, enough North Korean escapees have turned to robbery that they have acquired a reputation as untrustworthy among Han Chinese, the country's dominant ethnic group. Residents of farming villages around Tumen tell of North Koreans breaking into their homes and making off with appliances and livestock, then selling the booty for cash.
Local officials and police, many of whom are ethnic Koreans, often ignore the North Koreans as long as they commit no crimes, aid workers said. But when orders come down from Beijing, as occurred following a rush of asylum-seekers into the South Korean Embassy last fall, scores of North Koreans are rounded up and shipped back across the border.