At a bend in the Tumen River, a stooped North Korean man, with the face of an 80-year-old and the body of a sickly boy, stumbled down an icy road on the Chinese side of the border here. In broad daylight, he risked capture, deportation by China's border police and beatings. "I don't care anymore," said Kim Guang Il, 20, a cement factory worker who had walked 60 snowy miles over seven days from the North Korean port of Chongjin, wearing a flax sack for a scarf, rags for socks and gloves, and shoes without laces. "If I stayed hiding in the snow, I was going to die. If I stayed in North Korea, I was going to die. I am too cold. And I am starving." "You don't know what is happening in my country," he added, a cough tearing through his withered body, wracked by hunger and swollen with frostbite. "We are dying slowly." His parents, he said, were dead from disease. A brother had disappeared in the all-consuming search for food. A friend had succumbed to hunger and cold as they struggled to reach China. Kim left his frozen corpse by the side of the road, behind the billboard on the North Korean side of the river that proclaims: "Long Live the Great Sun of the 21st Century, Kim Jong Il." Interviews with more than 20 refugees and private aid officials during a recent four-day trip to China's border with North Korea paint a stark picture of developments inside the isolated country where some reports say that a famine may have killed as many as 2 million people since the mid-1990s. Refugees described a grotesque landscape of crumbling families, homes without electricity or heat, and towns and villages where promised foreign food aid did not arrive or was reserved for ruling party elites, whose neighbors survived on twigs, leaves, cornstalks and frogs. Some refugees spoke at night, minutes after sneaking into China -- sliding over the 30-foot-wide sheath of ice over the Tumen River and scrambling up the forested banks. Others talked in the homes of members of China's Korean minority who have given them shelter. Some children spoke in quiet teahouses, where they were glad for a warm cup of tea or a Coke. Scores of these youths inhabit the streets of Yanji and other cities in northeastern China, sleeping in video parlors or on construction sites and running from the police. International Concern Together, their stories provided another, usually invisible dimension to warnings in Washington, Tokyo and other capitals about North Korea's increasing prominence as an unstable international menace. Among policymakers, North Korea's missile program and its clandestine nuclear-weapons program have focused alarm. But here, amid the snow-covered forests and fields of Manchuria, it is the ravaging famine that is on everybody's lips. North Koreans have been entering China illegally since food shortages began sweeping the country in the mid-1990s, the combined result of disastrous economic policies and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been North Korea's biggest trading partner. Estimates of the numbers of North Koreans in northeastern China hover around 100,000. Many refugees commute between the two sides, profiting from the booming black market in their country for food and other basic necessities. Most refugees enter the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China's Jilin Province, more than 600 miles northeast of Beijing. There, China's ethnic Korean population has clandestinely taken in thousands of refugees, giving them food and jobs. The area has a strong tradition of Christianity, and, local sources say, Korean churches have played an important role in the underground distribution of food and shelter. South Korean private aid officials and missionaries also are active in the border region, secretly sowing the seeds of religion among the refugees as they provide them with food, new clothes and a warm place to sleep. Chinese sources say intelligence operatives from several countries -- Japan, the United States, South Korea and Russia -- frequent the region in efforts to monitor events across the border. The area is also thick with agents from China's State Security Ministry. "This is a wild zone," one Western diplomat said. "Everybody has three identities and four ID cards. It's one of the ends of the earth." For several years, China tolerated the presence of thousands of illegal immigrants in the region and the secretive efforts to help them. But starting in January, the Chinese government, alarmed by a growing local crime rate, began expelling large numbers of Korean refugees. Authorities around Yanji increased the fine for harboring North Korean refugees to about $400 -- equivalent to the yearly earnings of many people in the region. Chinese border police, sometimes searching house by house, have rounded up hundreds of North Koreans in recent weeks -- 200 from the township of Dunhua alone in one sweep, local residents said -- and forcibly repatriated them to North Korea. Inhuman Treatment Refugees said those caught generally spend a week in a Chinese jail before being handed over to North Korean border guards. They are often beaten on their return to the North and then, if they look young enough, are sent to institutions for orphans. If not, they go to a labor camp. Both places, however, are relatively easy to escape from. This is critical because refugees described conditions in these institutions as inhuman. Residents at the orphanages get one small bowl of gruel a day, filled with three spoonfuls of an unidentified green mush, according to two children who had been held in different facilities. Inmates in the labor camps said they received no food except that provided by relatives. Last summer, North Korea appears to have instituted a shoot-to-kill policy on the border, instructing its patrols to fire on fleeing refugees. Five bodies with gunshot wounds were found around Tumen, a town that straddles the border, local sources said. But lately, refugees said, the guards have stopped firing on them. "Now they let us cross and when we come back over we give them money and food," said a 45-year-old woman from the border city of Hyesan who has made five trips to China searching for food. "They are hungry, too." In some cases, refugees corroborated testimony given recently by Western officials, such as U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Patrick Hughes, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who told Congress on Feb. 2 that the discipline of the North Korean army is collapsing. Many refugees reported that soldiers have taken to raiding informal markets, stealing food at gunpoint. "The children of officials all used to want to join the army because they got food," said a 17-year-old boy who is part of a growing population of North Korean street children in northeastern China. "Now, they are in the markets like everyone else. But they have guns." The rail-thin teenager, who stood just over 5 feet tall and looked like he hadn't entered puberty, said he favored the markets back home as well because speedy boys could always steal a little food. At night, he said, he gravitated toward the train stations. There, amid the crowd, he could stay warm. "And if someone dies, you might be able to steal a pair of shoes," added a 14-year-old comrade, who had arrived in China two days before. Food Aid Questioned The accounts of some refugees called into question reports by U.N. and U.S. officials that international aid is getting to the neediest North Koreans. The World Food Program, which is administered by the United Nations, has said that the more than 600,000 tons of mostly American food it gave to North Korea last year provided nourishment to 7.47 million people, including 5 million children aged 6 months to 12 years. But verifying such information is difficult: The program has fewer than 40 monitors, none of whom speaks fluent Korean, in a country of 23 million. The monitors are escorted wherever they go by North Korean officials, and each trip must be announced days in advance. Refugees charged that international aid is being systematically diverted to children of members of the ruling Workers' Party and the army. Refugees added that their children were either not getting or only rarely receiving U.N. aid even though they live in regions where the United Nations distributes food. Two refugees said they were present when U.N. employees visited their areas to monitor the distribution of aid, one in Hyesan in the north and the other in Chongjin in the northeast. "I remember when the U.N. team came over to our house with the state security people," said a 20-year-old woman from Hyesan, interviewed in her new home -- a farmer's thatch-roofed shack 50 miles inside China. "It was in August. They stayed for two hours. That month {our family} got even more food." The woman said authorities chose her house because her mother was a member of the Workers' Party and thus received much more food than the average North Korean. She said her family had most of the amenities of a "modern life in Korea": a fan, a Russian-made washing machine and a Russian-made refrigerator. "We even had a calendar this year," she said. Paper is scarce in North Korea because many of the trees have been chopped down to trade for food or for use as firewood. "When the U.N. teams came, the government gave the rich kids more food in the kindergarten," said a 35-year-old miner from Chongjin who said he saw the team visiting the combination school and day-care center in his neighborhood. "When the team went away, the extra food went away." He said his 5-year-old daughter doesn't have the "right" to go to the center because the mine has closed and he is out of work. "I'm not useful so why should my daughter eat," he said, repeating the Communist government's justification for its distribution practices. The belief that aid is being misused in North Korea and that aid agencies are being blocked from the poorest people prompted two major Western charities, Doctors of the World and Doctors Without Borders, to leave the country last summer in protest. Officials with Doctors Without Borders reported seeing groups of extremely malnourished children in several parts of the country where they distributed aid. When they asked for access to the children, North Korean authorities refused. "There is a complete contradiction between the logic of humanitarian aid and the logic of the North Korean regime," said Francois Jean, the director of research for a Paris-based foundation run by Doctors Without Borders. "The deal the West has made is simple: We'll give you food to bolster your regime and then you behave.' But is that what we really want to do? And are the North Koreans behaving?" Judy Cheng-Hopkins, the director of Asia programs for the World Food Program, said her agency is satisfied that food is getting to people who need it, especially to the country's 40,000 day-care centers, schools and hospitals. Officials of the program also stressed that international aid accounts for only 10 percent of the food that North Korea needs to feed itself. "I'm not saying that this is textbook-perfect but we have a pretty elaborate plan for monitoring the aid," Cheng-Hopkins said. "We have five sub-offices, in every corner of the country, two international permanent staff in each office. You can't pull wool over people's eyes if they live among you. They live there, they have eyes, they go to restaurants, they go to stores." One man from near Mount Kumgang, a popular tourist destination in the southern part of North Korea, countered that just before a group of foreigners would come to his village, authorities would turn on the public-address system in town and order people to stay indoors. "These people live here, but they don't see us," he said. "We are the invisible people." "No one goes to school except children of party officials in my town," he added. "We were told that there is no more food because China cut off aid and America wants us to starve. Now, after I stayed in China, I realized that is nothing but lies." The refugees charged the government of Kim Jong Il is using the distribution system to bolster his control of North Korea -- doling out food to loyal and "useful" people and ignoring the rest. "Things are getting worse now for the common people and better for the officials," said Zeng Jil, 35, an emaciated electronics factory worker whose 2-year-old son died of meningitis. Zeng came to China in hopes of earning enough to support his remaining family. "It is a clear distinction now," he said. "My little girl is okay, but my son is gone. I was destroyed by his death. I didn't have the will to live. I went to the banks of the river and caught frogs to eat. I ate cornstalks, branches, leaves. I found fish and bartered them for grain." A 37-year-old housewife from outside Pyongyang, the capital, said her family had received three handouts from the state's Public Distribution System in the past year -- on Feb. 16, Oct. 15 and Jan. 1. She has a 10-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son, who attends kindergarten and a day-care center but does not get U.N. aid. "I had to come to China to find food," said the woman, her face pulled tight with hunger and tension. "I worry about my children, but if I can't get them food they will die." In contrast, the 20-year-old daughter of a North Korean official from Hyesan said that her family had been provided with food rations twice a month, including a package of grain and an occasional bottle of liquor because of her family's elite status. But even her family decided China was a better bet. She was sneaked into China by her mother one month ago after her father died in October and the family's $50 monthly income dried up. Refugees were split about whether conditions are worsening in North Korea. Some said shortages had leveled off since 1996. Others said a slow collapse of the system was occurring before their eyes. Different parts of the country appear to be moving in different directions. "The government is still in control," said Kim Jil, 27, from near Pyongyang, "but the whole society has no goal anymore. The common people are trying to get food. The officials are getting more food. We used to say the soldiers were king, but they are having problems as well. Merchants are now regularly victimized by the soldiers. The children? They spend all day in the train station stealing food and trying to keep warm. I had a neighbor who died early last year. The authorities spent time identifying him and notifying his family. Now they don't even bother identifying people anymore." Areas near the Chinese border seem to be somewhat better off after North Korean authorities relaxed restrictions in 1996 on trade with China. Still, after three years, refugees reported vast deforestation and dismantling of factories as lumber and machinery are traded for grain. North Korean smugglers recently have begun trafficking in women to satisfy a big market for brides among Chinese farmers. China's influence on the North Korean refugees appears to be profound -- a sore point with the North Korean authorities who, Chinese sources said, recently demanded that China begin to crack down on the refugee traffic. Compared with the totalitarian state next door, China is a veritable paradise, where commerce and business are possible and South Korean TV, which is not jammed in China, can be seen. A day after sneaking into China, fresh from what he said was the first hot shower and best meal of his life -- featuring pork, beef, dog and a large pungent bowl of kimchi -- Kim Guang Il rested his swollen feet in a safe house in Yanji, a city of 300,000 about 50 miles from the North Korean border. Already he had watched several videos in Korean, provided by a private South Korean aid agency, that railed against the policies of the North Korean government. It was the first time in his life, he said, he had ever seen anyone publicly criticize his government. During his week-long journey to China, Kim said, he passed three bodies and three small children who had been abandoned by their parents. He said he didn't have the strength to bury his friend, who died along the way. "I don't know why I'm alive today," he said. "I could have just as easily died." Hunger in North Korea Famine has wracked North Korea for the past several years, sending thousands of people looking for food across the border in China. REFUGEES: At least 100,000 North Koreans have fled into China in search of food in the past four years. DEATHS: An estimated 2 million people -- of a population of 24 million -- have died of hunger or disease in North Korea since 1995. FOOD AID cumulative since 1995

TONS (millions) From China

2.0 From World Food Program (U.N.) 1.2 Direct aid from individual countries 0.9 TOTAL

4.1 SOURCE: U.S. Institute of Peace, staff reports CAPTION: Billboards proclaim Kim Jong Il as the Great Sun of the 21st Century even as his country nears collapse. ec CAPTION: North Korea has been heavily dependent on international food donations, such as this cargo of corn inspected last June by a North Korean official. ec CAPTION: Famine victim Kim Guang Il, 20, walked 60 miles to reach China. ec