The refugees running on empty

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IN JUNE, the Tumen river between North Korea and China dwindles to a mere stream. North Korean children paddle almost to the Chinese side with not a guard or a guard post in sight. South Korean tourists call out to North Korean fishermen with friendly enquiries about the day's catch.

The relaxed mood is a shock to journalists peering across the border for evidence of mass mortality. Certainly, there are signs all is not well. Hillsides have been ploughed at inclines of more than 45 degrees. Flatdwellers line the river banks to collect their water supply. The bare mountain slopes near large settlements are in stark contrast with the well-wooded slopes in China.

Most of the skinny children on the North Korean side appear healthy, although here and there you see some sitting motionless, apart from the rest, clutching painfully thin legs.

But you can find famine victims without looking across the river. During a two day tour of the Tumen region on the Chinese side of the border, we met seven food refugees.

Our tour bus picked up two of them along a mountain road. They were enticed aboard with promises of food and friendship. "This feels like a dream", said one. She started to cry silently, then checked herself, with a self control born of long practise.

The other five were hiding in the hills, huddling under plastic sheets when it rained. One of them, a woman with a six-year-old child, allowed us to photograph her skeletal body because she thought the pictures might persuade a doctor to treat her.

She had been unable to get hospital treatment over the border in North Korea. "How can I get a hospital to treat me when I can't even buy food? Please help me," she said.

Although there are many ethnic Koreans living in China, none could be persuaded to take her in. Our interview was broken up by our Chinese guides who insisted that we must leave before we attracted attention. The next day our guides told us that the woman would probably have been arrested and would be repatriated.

A network of Korean Chinese shelters refugees, risking hefty fines. Moving from one safe house to another we met five more North Koreans. All looked undernourished, despite weeks, even months. of Chinese food. In a barely audible whisper, snuffling into a handkerchief, one girl told us she had travelled from the far south of her country to get morphine for her sick mother.

She thought her mother had a kidney disease. With 10,000 North Korean won (about pounds 40) she could start a business making tofu and support the two of them, she said. One of her Korean Chinese hosts was doubtful whether she really intended to go back.

"Most of them don't want to, except the ones from just across the border," he said. "If refugees have relatives here, or they can find husbands, they might be able to stay. Even then it's dangerous." All the refugees said they had lost close relatives to the famine. One man said he must have seen 40 corpses since January.

Non-political refugees repatriated from China to North Korea are normally sent to confinement camps for three months, he told us. "It used to be for years but nowadays there too many refugees. If they are fit, they can survive in the camps by eating grass. There's virtually no food."

In Peking, the UN High Commission for Refugees explained that North Koreans who apply for political asylum would need to show that they had entered China because of a well grounded fear of persecution, on grounds of race, religion or political belief. "It can't just be because they're suffering from famine, as that applies to everyone," said a spokesman.

The number of refugees has fallen in the past two months, according to Korean Chinese, and the food situation seems to have improved for most people. Aid workers inside North Korea have seen fewer cases of malnutrition recently.

The South Korean charity, the Buddhist Sharing Movement, claims to have interviewed 1,500 North Korean refugees.

This body estimated the death toll from malnutrition and disease at more than three million since 1995, out of a population of 23 million. Another charity, World Vision, estimated from a similar survey that between half a million and two million died from January to August 1997.

Our sample of 12 told of mortality rates for their families that were similar to those recorded by the Buddhist Sharing Movement. Their estimates of death rates in the various regions of North Korea were largely guesswork, based on the number of empty houses.

In each case they gave the cause and time of death of each relative. It was difficult not to believe them. Nearly all admitted they had left behind parents, partners or dependents still alive in North Korea, an especially damaging admission for family-oriented Koreans.

The UN World Food Programme cannot confirm the refugees' reports. The agency had only seven international monitors in North Korea for most of last year. None spoke Korean. It conducted a nutritional assessment last November of under-seven year olds, finding that nearly all suffered from food deficits.

Many observers find it hard to believe that the North Korean regime would hide the evidence of a famine.

But perhaps the leader Kim Jong-Il is following the example of Mao Tse- tung, whose regime hid a famine in the late 1950's which historians now believe killed 30 million people. Pyongyang may think it can ride out a catastrophe without ever admitting it happened.