Flight of the flower-swallows

North Korea's starving children are risking torture and death by foraging for food in China. Teresa Poole reports
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The Independent Online
"OF COURSE I've seen it with my own eyes. They broadcast to the town telling everyone to convene in one place, and then execute people by hanging. For three hours." Sixteen-year-old Hyong grabs his own throat and makes throttling sounds to demonstrate. "If they survive, they're OK. If they are dead, they dig and bury them, just like a dead dog."

We are sitting on the floor in a spartan apartment on the Chinese side of the North Korean border, a hide-out for six North Korean boys aged 16-18. Their bodies are so stunted from four years of famine that they look 13. These are a handful of the secret children, who creep across the frontier into China in search of food, bringing with them eyewitness tales of the brutality and hardship back home in the world's most isolated state. In Korean, they are known as Kkot-jebi (flower-swallows), children who flit from one eating possibility to another. Ask why they risked the crossing to China, and they say simply: "We were starving to death."

Under cover of darkness, we meet a dozen North Korean children and hear the stories of others. Separately, they tell of similar horrors. Thirteen- year-old Kim remembers: "In 1996 and 1997 the most people were killed. They used a sword, and attached the body to a stick, and hung the head at the crossroads. They asked people to gather to see this scene, to let them know that if they committed crimes then they will be hung too."

Were people executed for stealing? "Yes, for stealing corn, and metal rope found in a factory, because they sell that metal rope to China. Some had stolen pigs and oxen," he says. Were there many executions? "Yes. In front of a factory by my house, three people were shot. They put the corpses inside sacks, and took them to the mountain."

For the past four years, North Korea's brand of Stalinist terror has gone hand-in-hand with a severe famine, the full human cost of which remains unknown. "Just in my town, 12 children have died," says Hyong. "Many children have died. Many just pick up the earth and eat it," agrees 13-year-old Lee, who crossed into China in December.

Parents are forced to abandon their children, going out to scavenge for food for the family. One boy says: "My father bought some rat poison and carried it to use if he was caught. Just in case." To commit suicide? "Yes," he nods, sobbing uncontrollably.

There are tales of cannibalism, though none of the children we meet admits themselves to eating human flesh. "We devour people if somebody dies. If someone dies, it's death, no meaning," says Hyong.

If they can escape to China, the luckiest children are cared for by local residents, but must live a life in hiding, away from the Chinese police and North Korean spies. They are visibly scared at the first sight of strangers, and for good reason. The previous night, four North Korean agents had come by car to another children's hide-out and kidnapped seven of the older teenagers. "They will kill them," despairs one Chinese carer.

China has a long-standing agreement to return escapees to North Korea. In practice, however, much of the time the local Chinese authorities turn a blind eye to the safe havens for the refugee children, and even to adults. But there are unpredictable crackdowns. Gary Perkins, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Peking, says a large group of 100 adult escapees was sent back from the north-east Chinese city of Dunhua in December. Local Chinese harbouring refugees are also at risk. One Chinese couple we met who were sheltering a group of a dozen North Koreans said they had been fined 30,000 yuan (pounds 2,200) last year by the Chinese police, and beaten for six hours.

So is there now increasing international pressure for those weakest escapees to have some sort of refugee status inside China? "We would like to see something done for the vulnerable group - women and children - on a more systematic basis than is done at the moment," said Mr Perkins. But China has an "honest dilemma", he added. Extensive refugee programmes would create an enormous "pull factor", encouraging just the flood of North Korean refugees which China fears.

I ask Hyong what would happen if he went back to North Korea. He hitches up his shirt, motions to his belt buckle and makes lashing movements. "They would beat me with a belt," he says. He is speaking from experience - over the past 18 months, Hyong has been caught 16 times in China and sent back by the police. Now he and his friends have met me and an American colleague. "Meeting Chinese people is OK," said Hyong. "But if you have met an American the North Korean security would kill you. They would shoot you. If I went back and I told anyone I had met an American, there would be trouble. One bullet should be enough, but sometimes they shoot twice."

Hyong and his pals are dressed in cast-off clothes, many incongruously sporting counterfeit American brand labels such as Adidas and Nike, unknown inside North Korea. This group goes outside to play football, but most of the time is spent inside the small two-roomed flat, with a tiny black and white television, a collection of books and a makeshift blackboard.

North-east China's 600-mile border with North Korea is very porous. The North Korean guards are fierce, but hungry enough to be bribable. On the Chinese side, the residents are predominantly Korean Chinese, speaking the same language and naturally sympathetic to the plight of their ethnic brethren. This century's history has left many ethnic Korean families split between China and North Korea, and many starving children come looking for better-off relatives.

According to a Western refugee expert who spent months interviewing escapees, not all the North Korean children are orphans. It can be a "strategic decision" to send a child into China, he says. "If the situation is so bad in North Korea, and if there is even the remote possibility of obtaining food in China, why wouldn't you send a child in to try to keep at least some member of your household alive?"

There are no reliable statistics for the North Koreans hiding in China. The refugee expert estimates that there are between 20,000 and 100,000 clandestine crossings a year into China, most as quick food runs. A researcher for the US Institute of Peace in Washington estimates that between 100,000 and 250,000 North Koreans are now in China.

In one hideaway we meet a group of five absolutely tiny, children aged betwen seven and 13. The 13-year-old girl is even shorter than the nine- year-old. They sit on the soft linoleum flooring, the two smallest in matching green pyjamas, with "Beauty" emblazoned on the front. In this secret world there are five neatly folded piles of clothes, no furniture, no toys, but a colour TV.

Where is your father, we ask one? "I have nobody," he says. Where is your father, we press gently? Another child answers for him: "Chugotta" (Dead).

We have brought a case of biscuits, and for 30 minutes, they do not pause in between munching biscuits. All chatter dwells on the immediate.

"I'm going to eat everything."

"You eat so fast, wow! So fast."

"You keep eating, you're going to get fat!"

Children this small are usually brought into China by an elder sibling or adult relative, who then leaves them where they can be found.

A World Food Programme (WFP) nutritional survey conducted last year inside North Korea found that almost one-in-six of the children under seven years old was suffering from acute malnutrition, while two-thirds showed moderate or severe stunting. The older children are probably in even worse shape, having missed out on the WFP aid which targets those under seven.

Everyone expects the number of children sneaking into China to rise. "If nothing is done for them," says Mr Perkins, "I think that would be a tragedy."

Hyong explains what makes him happy: "Good food and good sleep. Living like a human being. Humans should live like humans, not just like a beast."