National Geographic : 2009 Feb
• empty except for a few military vehicles and bicycles. The only color is a giant mural of a smiling Kim Il Sung, founder of North Korea and father of its present leader, Kim Jong Il, both held up as deities. For Red, whose family lived within sight of the border, China appeared a seductive paradise. "I could see so many lights from apartment blocks and a power plant. China looked so rich." She had been raised on a collective farm in the province of North Hamgyong, the poorest part of North Korea and the source of most border crossers. "I grew up seeing people getting sick and dying from eating grass," she said. Lately she also noticed that entire housing blocks in a nearby city had been nearly emptied of women. They had all escaped across the border. As recently as 2003 the ratio of men to women ee- ing North Korea was roughly equal; now women make up more than three-quarters of the traf- c, a gender imbalance unusual in the world s refugee movements. With most men either in the military or working on farms or in fac- tories, women can slip away from homes and jobs more easily, and once in China they more readily nd work, though increasingly, like Red and White, they re caught up in the sex industry or are tra cked as brides to Chinese farmers. Red escaped on a rainy July night. e teenager had been worried that she was a burden to her family and was embarrassed to start a job that required her to read news of the "Dear Leader"--- Kim Jong Il---over a town loudspeaker. Her aunt le with her, and a er paying guards about $15 to look the other way, they reached the Tumen. With panicked arms, Red paddled across on a raft of roped-together inner tubes. Her aunt didn t make it, forced back by a leaky oat. Ter- ri ed and alone, Red, then only 15, set out walk- ing. She was soon taken in by a North Korean woman who had been sold as a bride to a Chinese farmer. For the next three years Red worked out of sight as a farmhand and dishwasher. Eventu- ally, a er stealing money from an employer and traveling to Yanji, she ended up in the computer sex operation, facing a camera next to White. and conspiring with missionaries or others to reach South Korea is considered treason, with offenders starved, tortured, and sometimes publicly executed. Human rights organizations and various foreign leaders, particularly in the United States and the European Union, are urg- ing China to honor its international agreements by treating the North Koreans as refugees, a status they re entitled to because of the punish- ments they face if deported. But China main- tains that the defectors are illegal "economic migrants." In the months leading up to the 2008 Olympics, Chinese authorities intensi ed their e orts to apprehend defectors, capturing and deporting dozens, perhaps hundreds, a week. Yet they keep coming. Most sneak across the narrow Tumen River, which forms roughly a third of North Korea s border with China, crossing in summer, when the river is shallow enough to wade, or in win- ter, when it s possible to walk across the ice. e Chinese side of the Tumen looks strangely benign---it isn t crawling with soldiers or bris- tling with electri ed fences. On the opposite bank, in North Korea, bunkers every few hun- dred yards look more like abandoned hunting blinds than guard posts. Visiting the Chinese side, I asked my driver why the border isn t better protected. He smiled faintly. " e North Koreans gure they ll catch troublemakers before they ever reach the river, and the Chinese are sure they can nd North Koreans anytime they want." Apart from the guard posts, the view across the river betrays nothing of the North Korean reality beyond: the dozens of prison camps for citizens deemed insu ciently loyal, the malnu- trition and hunger that stalk as many as a fourth of the country s 23 million people, the number of people in uniform---at least a million---who bully and spy on the citizenry. Collective farms, most appearing to lack electricity, dot the river plain. A single-lane bridge leads to Namyang, a town of unpainted apartment blocks, its streets Tom O Neill is a senior writer for the Geographic. Taiwan native Chien-Chi Chang is with the Magnum photo agency and lives in Taipei and New York City.