TUMEN, China - The snow-specked mountains that rise on both sides of the frozen Tumen River, marking the border with North Korea, mask a harsh reality here in the cold, far reaches of northeastern China.
For North Koreans, this has become treacherous territory, the site of a cold last stand for uncounted would-be refugees, some of them succumbing to below-zero temperatures, others caught by Chinese or North Korean border troops.
Refugees who manage to make it into China may still end up back here, inside a pink concrete building with matching turrets that sits like a quaint castle on a Chinese hillside. It is the Yanbian Border Defense Military Detention and Inspection Center, where China detains North Korean refugees before busing them back across the river, to almost certain imprisonment.
While the United States searches for ways to restrain North Korea's nuclear ambitions, China is working with North Korea to stem a flow of refugees trying to escape starvation and the repression of the regime.
Those who reach China and stay face a difficult existence - a life spent in hiding and in constant fear of apprehension by Chinese authorities or North Korean agents. The tension is also felt by individuals working underground to help refugees, an informal aid community that has become more cautious and fearful of detection.
"It's too sensitive," said a native South Korean who is active in the Korean Christian community in Yanbian Prefecture, a region in China's Jilin Province that is home to about 900,000 ethnic Koreans. "Two years ago, you could meet with [refugees] officially even. Now, that's impossible."
"Only one-to-one meetings, underground, are possible. But only underground, to meet, to find out, 'What are your conditions? How are you doing?'"
The Yanbian prefecture, which includes about 325 miles of the 870-mile Chinese-North Korean border, has been a favored first destination for North Koreans since the North began suffering a devastating famine in the mid-1990s. The Tumen River is narrow and shallow here, making it easy to cross, especially in winter. Korean is widely spoken, and many ethnic Koreans feel a strong bond with their neighbors in the North.
But conditions for the refugees are much more difficult now, as the government has tightened its restrictions in recent years. Two years ago, as many as 200,000 North Koreans lived illegally in northern China, aid workers estimate. Today the number who remain may be as low as 20,000.
International human rights groups condemn China's actions, arguing that the North Koreans are escaping political repression and merit protection under international covenants.
Not owed protection
Chinese authorities counter that the North Koreans being repatriated are illegal immigrants crossing for economic purposes, not because of political prosecution, and are not owed special protection. Chinese and western scholars say China's main concern is preserving the stability of the North Korean regime, lest its collapse produce chaos and a flood of refugees.
In recent years, about 130 North Koreans have managed to enter foreign embassies and diplomatic compounds in Beijing and other Chinese cities to seek asylum, and almost all have been granted safe passage out of the country. This increasingly publicized tactic embarrassed and angered the Chinese government and, activists here said, may have sparked a crackdown that began last spring.
Last month, Chinese police arrested at least 48 North Koreans trying to flee by boat from the Chinese port of Yantai to South Korea and Japan - as well as three other persons accused of collaborating to help the refugees escape, according to human rights groups.
Some activists in Yanbian, more than 600 miles from Beijing, said undercover North Korean agents are posing as refugees, coming to churches and to the campus of a private university in the city of Yanji that is supported by Korean and American Christian funds. One man who recently approached a Korean Christian church raised suspicions, an activist said, by his well-nourished appearance.
Making matters worse for refugees is that local ethnic Koreans have become less accommodating, because the North Koreans have developed a reputation for theft and violent crime.
"We are all the same family, so in the beginning when they asked for help, we were very welcoming," said one 27-year-old church member in Yanji, the prefecture capital, and who, like most people working with the refugees, asked not to be named. "Now people are more concerned about their safety."
All of this has pushed refugees further underground, to homes in more remote, poorer locations. Along the narrow, unpaved paths of densely packed urban Korean neighborhoods, refugees used to be a relatively common sight, and they would ask residents for a little money, food, clothes or a place to stay. Such encounters have become rare.
That is also true in the churches, already closely scrutinized by a government with limited tolerance for organized religion.
"I hear that they are told, when they come over here, look for the cross, and they may be able to get help," said a 44-year-old man who belongs to a Yanbian church. "The people in North Korea, they are victims of the North Korean regime, so if I can find a way to help them, I want to do that."
The typical refugee who finds help might receive a few dollars and a meal of traditional Korean kimchi, vegetables and rice. Some go directly back to help feed their families in the North; others search for a way to other parts of China or undertake the arduous trek to China's remote southern borders in hopes of finding a way to South Korea.
Those who stay may find a place for a night or, if they're lucky, a few weeks or months, with little hope of establishing a normal way of life.
"North Koreans, they have pride," the native South Korean said. "If you ask them their conditions, they always say, 'My conditions are good. I have enough. But if you have anything, please give it to me.'"
Some activists here hope that international attention might ease the crackdown, but others worry that published accounts will only lead to increased pressure from Chinese authorities.
And the plight of refugees could worsen: "Some people will die, some people will be sent out of China, some will be sent back to North Korea to very difficult lives," said the South Korean.
An unknown number of those who are sent back are first brought to the hillside border detention building. The facility overlooks An Shan, a grain-farming village of about 400 people who live in small brick-and-concrete farmhouses along a two-lane road traveled by the occasional man or ox pulling loads of kindling and coal.
Death in the mountains
Wang Gui Tang, a 72-year-old father of seven, paused on the road one afternoon after his pull-cart, overflowing with kindling, had a flat tire. Wang saves about $200 to $250 a year from farming and never lacks for food, including meat and tofu.
Wang considers it a modest life, but it is one that would be a fantasy for those on the other side of the border.
The North Korean government supplies a ration of up to 300 grams of grain a day per person - less than half of a survival ration, according to Gerald Bourke, a spokesman in Beijing for the United Nations World Food Program. Other reports say that estimate exaggerates the allotments.
Worse, the WFP is running out of food to supplement those rations. Donors have reduced or withheld their contributions because of uncertainty about whether the people most in need receive the donated grains and because of the North Korean nuclear crisis.
This month, Bourke said, nearly 3 million of the 4.2 million North Koreans targeted by the WFP are not receiving WFP food aid.
Small private farmers' markets with fruits and vegetables now operate in some areas, but they often are not well-stocked and prices are beyond reach for most, according to activists.
"A woman from Qingjin [a North Korean port city] said that the women's fate is the most miserable," Zhou Weiping, professor at the Center for Northeast Asia Studies in Jilin province, reported in an academic paper on North Koreans fleeing for China. "In order to feed their husband and children, they often have to walk several miles to the countryside to exchange for grain. Because of hunger and exhaustion, many die on the road."
Wang has seen firsthand how grim things can get in the North Korean winter.
Two years ago, a wire-thin North Korean woman of about 60 managed to cross the border only to die in the freezing cold, in the mountains by his village. At the request of local police, Wang and another villager stood watch in four-hour shifts for two nights, until the authorities could collect the body and send it back to North Korea.
The woman had gone through the mountains wearing only a ripped white skirt and long underwear, and a small, thin black jacket. So the local police bought her a new wardrobe, including a blue thick cotton jacket.
"Some of my friends were saying," Wang recalled, "that she went back in better circumstances than she came."