If North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il had any inclination to leverage the moment of good feeling generated by last week's New York Philharmonic concert in Pyongyang, he has a funny way of showing it. North Korea earlier this week publicly executed 15 of its citizens for trying to flee the country by crossing the Tumen River on the border with China, a South Korean human rights organization reported on Wednesday.
There are tens of thousands of North Korean refugees now living in Chinano one knows the precise numberbut in the past 18 months, aid groups say, Pyongyang has cracked down on what was a growing human tide seeking a slightly better life across the border. If accurate, the report of the executions, which came from Seoul's Good Friends Center for Peace, Human Rights and Refugees, sends a chilling message to those thinking about sneaking out of the country.
The North Korean government in the past has executed captured refugees, but it does so inconsistently. Pyongyang sends some for extended stays in the country's horrific prisons. Aid groups and people active in the so-called underground railroad, which tries to move refugees into China and eventually to safety in Seoul, say the executions this week were probably meant to deter those fleeing because food is scarce. To North Koreans, the period just before the spring barley harvest is known as "barley hill." In the past, failure to get over the "hill" has meant death by starvation, particularly during the famine years a decade ago, during which some two million North Koreans died. Even though Seoul is now sending 400,000 tons of rice each month to the North, NGOs have reported scattered food shortages.
Diplomats also believe that China has recently been pressuring North Korea to stem the flow of refugees. "Beijing wanted to nip in the bud, before the Olympics, any chance that the number of refugees would turn into a flood this year," says one diplomat who has followed the issue. "They've really tried to crack down on the border." Beijing isn't motivated purely by image concerns prior to Beijing 2008. The manufacturing economy in China's northeast, home to many state-owned companies, has slowed. "The Chinese already have plenty of surplus labor in that part of the country; they don't need or want any more, and that message has been conveyed to Pyongyang," the diplomat says. Publicly, Beijing insists that all North Korean refugees are "economic migrants" who have no right under international law to enter China illegally. International human rights groups disagree, and say Beijing, as a signatory to the United Nation's protocol on refugees, is obliged to give them safe harbor.
The situation is unlikely to improve. Sources say it was once relatively easy to bribe North Korean border guards to look the other way when people tried to cross over. Not so now. "It appears the North Koreans have increased salaries on the border, or put more senior guards there, over the past year or so, because things are more difficult now," says a Christian activist working under cover in China. This source, whose group claims to have moved hundreds of North Koreans to freedom over the past three years, says the flow is "now down to a trickle." Public executions, he adds, "are meant to ensure that that remains the case."