Three years ago, Kim Kan-Su and Kim Young-Hee lived here with their 5-year-old son, Young-shin, in a hole in the ground, hiding from police. Their crime, in the eyes of China and their homeland, North Korea, was simply that they left their famine-stricken country to look for food. Their underground hideout was only a couple of miles from the North Korean border, but it was one of many "homes" they had in the mountains since they fled North Korea. Chinese police are paid a bounty to capture refugees like them and return them to North Korea. The Kims lived with the knowledge that if they were sent back, they would be labeled as traitors and possibly face execution. "Though we don't have a house, living like this in hiding, at least we eat rice, which is rarely available in North Korea, even for well-off families. We just hope we don't get caught," Young-Hee, the mother, told Korean-American filmmaker Kim Jung-eun at the time. "Everything else is fine, except for the fear and distress," said Kan-Su, the father.
The Kims are only a fraction of the North Korean citizens whose lives have been ravaged by the famine that has besieged their homeland since the mid-1990s. The famine is estimated to have killed some 2 million of the nation's 24 million people since 1995, and led to as many as 300,000 heading for China to live illegally.
Some say the famine is largely the fault of the North Korean government, which maintains a million-man army to defend one of the most heavily armed areas in the world — the DMZ, or demilitarized zone separating it and South Korea. Others counter that the North Korean economy is crumbling and the government cannot purchase anything because of its poor credit rating. Natural disasters, like a drought in 1997, also contributed to hardships. Because the country is so reclusive, granting access only to a handful of visitors, international media coverage of the famine has been limited. But last month, five North Korean refugees, including a 2-year-old girl, got some attention for their plight when they sought asylum by entering the Japanese consulate in Shenyang in northeastern China. Chinese guards dragged them out, but after an international outcry, they were allowed to proceed on to South Korea.
In other parts of China, an underground network of private individuals, ethnic Korean families and local churches run a support network for North Koreans looking for food to take back to their starving families. Among the supplies they hide in a church are flour, corn, rice, medicine, soap and sugar. They could face fines and prison if they're caught giving this aid to North Koreans. When asked by local authorities about the supplies, they usually say it's all for poor locals. For those who make it to China, the struggle is far from over. On the shores of the Tuman River, which is all that separates China and North Korea at one stretch of China, other trials await, including human traffickers and the prying eyes of neighbors and police. "I knew seven women who were sold and brought to the area where I worked for a year. I knew one of them from back home. I wish I could give them a better situation where they could make their own living and be free. North Korean women are sold everywhere," one woman told the filmmaker. But risking these fates is better than facing the ones some North Koreans say they left behind.
"Some people made sausages with human flesh and also blood pudding, then sold them. They were caught and executed," said one North Korean. "One boy was still a minor, 16 years old. They faked his age so they could execute him. He was very small because he was malnourished. We all saw the execution. It made me cry. I know it was a terrible crime, but imagine how hungry they must have been to do such a thing."
In the forest, surrounded by caution and living in fear, the Kims tried to keep some sense of a normal family life for their young son. Kan-Su taught his son about animals, and showed him how to set traps, to catch rabbits and birds. He used some of the game to trade for rice and vegetables at a local village. Kan-Su worked at a tobacco farm an hours' walk from his hideout. His labor there was illegal and he received no pay, but he was compensated with a small amount of rice, which he brought back to his family every three days or so. The family still bore the scars of their situation though. Malnourishment from the famine of North Korea stunted Young-shin's growth, and his parents mourned for their broken family. When the Kim family first came to China, they had three children and Young-Hee was pregnant with a fourth. But they could not feed or educate them properly, hiding in the forest, and one by one, they had to give their children away. The baby boy who was born in the hideout was first given to a childless Chinese family. Later, the Kims reluctantly handed their two girls to an orphanage. They considered it the girls' only chance of ever receiving an minimum standard of decent nutrition and education. Soon, the Kims realized they could not provide enough for Young-shin either. So three years ago, the Kims gave away the last of their children.