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North Korean refugees rarely tell their stories. They are too busy ducking, whispering, and running.

The wrong word finding its way to the wrong person could be disastrous. As a North Korean woman attending university in South Korea explained, "I fear my family will be harmed if I speak."

In July, more than 430 North Koreans were airlifted to Seoul from an undisclosed Southeast Asian nation, possibly Vietnam. News reports called it the largest-ever movement of refugees into South Korea. Seoul is normally wary of accepting North Korean defectors for political and economic reasons, but apparently officials helped pave the way for these refugees.

The number of defectors from North Korea to South Korea has been steadily growing, according to news reports. Last year, it reached 1,285. It was 1,140 in 2002 and 583 in 2001. As many as 30 Koreans sought asylum with the United States over the past decade.

No one knows with certainty, but an estimated 300,000 North Korean refugees may now be hiding in China. As a North Korean ally, however, the Chinese government pays informants 500 yuan (US$62) to track down these refugees.

China marches 5,000 North Korean defectors a month back to their country across the Tuen Bridge in the northwestern Jilin Province, sometimes with wire passed through wrist and nose, according to rights groups.

"The police beat us," a 2002 victim told Voice of the Martyrs. "Some had their heads cracked open, some had their teeth broken, and some could not walk again because their arms and legs were so injured."

To avoid political confrontation directly with North Korea, regional democratic countries like Japan receive defectors in their China-based embassies, then reroute them to a third country. Nearly 3,000 North ...

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A Heartless Homeland
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October 2004

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