The international media loves North Korea. It seems like a perfect example of a place of repression where life is tough and the hardships are never ending. So it is not surprising to read accounts of people so desperate to get out that they will risk not only their own life, but the lives of anyone they have any sort of close relationship with. Since three armies (South Korean, North Korean and American) fortify the Southern border, the only way out of the world’s last truly closed country is North, into China. Would be escapees must swim across the Yalu/Amnok river and hope to be accepted as refugees on the other side. The punishment for getting caught, to the best of my knowledge, is summary execution.
If they are successful in getting into China, the refugees then begin the laborious process of trying to start a new life. Many head to South Korea where they are given instant asylum and citizenship. Some resettle in South East Asia, and some relocate to whichever Western countries are willing to take them. But what if these people go through the harrowing ordeal of sneaking past security forces and swimming to their perceived freedom only to be seized by Chinese authorities and unceremoniously shipping back to North Korea to face their almost certain death?
This is the most recent challenge facing North Korean defectors, 31 of whom were apparently “repatriated” in secret this month. And since the 100-days of mourning for the death of Kim Jong-Il is still in effect, Kim Jong-Eun, his son, has mandated that anyone guilty of attempting escape during this period will be punished by having three generations of their family exterminated.
This has caused an outcry among human rights groups and North Korean refugees around the world, those in Seoul being no exception, against the Chinese policy. These images are from a protest outside the Chinese embassy where several activists are camped out on a hunger strike. One man I met had gone 22 days without eating and was barely able to stand up.
They were very welcoming and pleased that I was interested in their cause, and it looks hopeful that I’ll be able to do a more in depth project about the lives of North Korean refugees. More to come.