The high security surrounding Kim’s secret crossing from North Korea into China might have given the impression this stretch of water dividing the two Communist-ruled police states marked one of the world’s most secure borders.

Yet people continue to breach the

900-mile border in both directions.

Most make the risky crossing from the North Korean side, with no plans to return.

“I defected to China in March 2007 for a new opportunity outside North Korea but I was victimised by human traffickers and sold to an entertainment club and restaurant where I worked as a virtual slave for two years,” said Pang Yon-ju, a 26-year-old woman now living in Seoul. “I was terrified by the possibility of arrest at any time by the Chinese police.”

Pang joined a group of nine North Koreans who took refuge in the Danish embassy in Hanoi in September after they were helped along the ‘underground railway’ through China to Vietnam by the Seoul-based Helping Hands Korea.

Another woman in Pang’s group, Kim Sun-hi, escaped after traffickers sold her to a Chinese farmer. Kim said she could not remember a “single day of peace” during five years as an illegal migrant in China. She told Helping Hands she first entered China in March 2004 “for food”.

“But I was victimised by human traffickers in China at this point and became the wife of a poor Chinese farmer,” Kim said. “Luckily, I did not have any children with the Chinese farmer and managed to break away from him to work at a restaurant.”

Thousands of other North Korean women are not so lucky. Between

30,000 and 300,000 North Korean migrants remain in limbo in China, according to different estimates, most of them women.

“Some remain in hiding for a lifetime while others seek brokers or activists who will guide them along their journey out,” said LiNK Global, a US-based group helping the refugees inside China.

“From China, refugees must traverse the underground railroad to find one of the many routes to freedom, either through Mongolia or south through south-east Asia,” LiNK said.

As the United Nations High Commission for Refugees marks World Refugee Day today, it lists no North Korean refugees in China, though it designates them as ‘persons of concern’.

The UNHCR has requested access to the North Koreans many times since they began flooding across the border nearly 20 years ago during a famine that was estimated to have killed more than one million people in their homeland. North Korea now has a population of about 23 million.

China continues to label the North Koreans ‘economic migrants’, refusing to grant them refugee status and repatriating those caught by the police.

Kitty McKinsey, an East Asian regional spokesperson for UNHCR, said her organisation was “quite disturbed” by reports of trafficking, sexual exploitation and other abuses of North Koreans in China. It also believes China should not send back North Korean migrants, she said.


Read more at hearldscotland