North Korea: survival means slavery

Many North Koreans are so desperate to escape the country that they are prepared to risk their lives

The Tumen River, which divides China from North Korea, was frozen solid. We peered across to the North Korean side: the border guards' wooden huts emitted no smoke, suggesting that they were unheated. Outside, it was -16° Celsius. A wolf-like dog scampered along the river, leaving pad-prints in the snow. There were human footprints, too - evidence of a patrol, maybe, or of refugees who had fled at night, so desperate to leave North Korea that they would risk freezing to death or being shot.

Some chance it across the river on their own, hiding in the mountains on the Chinese side, hoping to find farm work in exchange for food. A small number manage to link up with church networks that smuggle people through China and eventually to South Korea. For many women, however, the choice is stark: to die of hunger in North Korea or be sold into slavery in China.

So poor are farmers in this remote part of Manchuria that local women refuse to marry them, preferring to try their luck in the small town of Huanqing or the nearby city of Yanji. As an alternative, Chinese families buy North Korean women from the snakehead gangs that operate along the Tumen and Yalu Rivers. With the one-child policy now creating an overall shortage of young women in China, the demand for North Korean refugee brides is certain to increase.

The driver took us 15 miles inside China to a bleak, snow-cloaked village. The only living creatures outside, under the leaden grey sky, were a few tethered cattle. It was the middle of the morning, but the village was silent. A wooden window frame swung unevenly on rusting hinges; snow covered the piles of firewood stacked against barn walls.

We walked up a frozen mud pathway to a shabby brick house, thatched with twigs. Inside, it was warm, the concrete floor covered in yellow plastic sheeting and heated by a wood burner underneath. Two women sat on the hot floor among the men who had bought them. The younger one was pretty, her smooth hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she smiled as she played with her five-year-old son. The driver had told us earlier that she had cost the equivalent of £130. The older one, who said she was 52, must have been cheaper, because she was already beyond childbearing age when she arrived. Her function was to cook and work in the fields. She had a mouthful of gold teeth. Neither would reveal her name or allow her face to be photographed.

"If the North Koreans find out I'm here, they will say I'm a traitor and they'll kill me," said the younger one. The older woman told her story first. "When I was in North Korea, I was sick and couldn't work, " she said. "My husband had died. The government put me and my children in a camp. When my son died, I was with him. There wasn't enough food, so he went to scavenge whatever people threw away on the streets and ate it. He got sick from eating garbage. He was in the hospital for five days before he died. He was 17. Now I have no family left in North Korea." Her reasoning was simple. "I escaped from North Korea because there was no food. My husband died. My son died. I didn't want to die, so I came to China."

It is hard to imagine a situation so desperate that you would conclude being sold was your least worst option, but that was her decision. "Someone in North Korea told me that I could come to China and marry into a Chinese family," she said. "I crossed the Tumen River and lived with a family in Tumen town for three days. I said that I wanted to be far away from the border, and they told me people are bought and sold in Shandong, so they sent me there."

She said a North Korean man had sold her to a Han Chinese family, but she could not speak the language and grew ever more miserable. "I lived there for three months but I couldn't talk to anybody in that Han family. They didn't give me a lot of food either. I worked on the farm. Then somebody brought me here to this family. I don't know how much money he sold me for. Those people are middlemen."

At this point our driver interrupted. "Don't use the word 'sold'," he said. "Just say you got married." He had told us he knew where the North Koreans were hiding, because he and his brother sometimes picked them up at the border and drove them inland, or were hired to take them further afield. We wondered if he was employed by the traffickers; driving journalists to meet the refugees was just another part of the business.

The younger woman was reluctant to talk. "I've lived in this village for five years, and I'm afraid to be caught by the police," she said. She indicated our camera, which we were carefully not pointing at her face. "I'm afraid of television, too," she said, looking at the floor.

The police had caught her when she was six months pregnant, but her new family paid a bribe to stop her being deported. "I think the police let me go because I was pregnant."

Refugees who have reached South Korea tell stories of pregnant women sent back to North Korea from China being forced to abort or even murder their newborns. Although many Chinese families in the border area are ethnically Korean, the regime in Pyongyang is obsessed with racial purity and believes that the children of Chinese fathers are contaminated. "Whenever I hear police cars, my heart jumps, and when they come, I just run out and hide," said the younger woman. "As long as I'm not caught by the police, I'll just stay here with my son and live a quiet life. Life is not easy in China, but I just want to live like this, and not get caught."

The Chinese government regards the North Koreans not as refugees needing help, but as illegal aliens. It will not allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to the border area, and limits the number of South Korean diplomats in the region, for fear they will encourage North Koreans to seek asylum. "The Chinese government flat-out refuses to recognise North Koreans as refugees," says Ron Redmond, chief spokesman for UNHCR. "But of course we help them; we've helped North Koreans reach South Korea. Nobody knows how many refugees there are: estimates have ranged from 30,000 to 300,000. " In 2005 an American Christian pastor, Philip Buck, was arrested in Yanji and held for 18 months on charges of "people smuggling". He was part of the "Seoul train" that takes refugees out of North Korea and China through Mongolia and Thailand to safety.

The Chinese authorities detain North Koreans in a monolithic yellow concrete block with small windows staring out across the river from a hilltop just outside Tumen. Every few weeks they load detainees into vans and take them across the bridge, where they are handed over to the border guards under a portrait of North Korea's "President for Eternity", Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.

In the late 1990s, hunger in North Korea became so acute that the country appealed for food aid and the UN World Food Programme stepped in. It is estimated that roughly two million people died. Now China and South Korea donate food, most of which is believed to reach the military and the elite in Pyongyang, while the WFP continues a smaller programme. "We have identified 1.9 million people dependent on food aid in North Korea," says Robin Lodge, a WFP spokesman. "At present we are feeding 740,000. Our funding is such that we believe we can continue feeding them until June this year."

Sanctions worsen hunger

In an anonymous block of flats in the mean little town of Huanqing, we met a family - mother, father, teenage son and daughter - that had been caught trying to take food to relatives back home. A Chinese Christian who would give his name only as "Mr Kim" took us to the flat which served as their refuge and their prison. "We're fine here, except we dare not go out," said the mother. She said Mr Kim brought them food and other necessities.

For five years the family had lived as a group of itinerant beggars, wandering around North Korea looking for food, because food distribution at the coal mine where the father had worked was inadequate. Their memory of dates and details was vague, but they said they crossed over into China in 2005. "For almost a year we lived in a tent in the mountains," said the father. They found the Christian network and converted. Then they began to worry about relatives back home, so they decided to join other Christians taking food back across the border.

Within days they were caught. Under interrogation, their friends confessed to being Christians and were jailed as political prisoners. The women were released and the father managed to resist confession, but the son was transferred back to their home town of Gosang.

"I was detained for another 20 days. There were 150 people in a cell 150 square metres large," he said. "Men were kept in the cell and women in the corridor." They were fed, but that was not enough. "Many prisoners got skin diseases," he said. "There was no medicine, and I saw many dead people in the cell."

It was not clear why he had been released, nor how the family had been reunited in China. Now Mr Kim was hoping to smuggle all four of them to Beijing and eventually to South Korea. When asked about relatives back home, mother and daughter started to cry. Although UN sanctions imposed after North Korea's nuclear test last year target luxury goods, Mr Kim's concern was that further economic pressure could send starvation levels back to those of the late 1990s. "The other day, I met some North Koreans who have only just arrived," he said. "They are ready for another economic crisis. There will be a second Hardship Long March this year."

In the past few years the North Korean economy has been prised open and increasing numbers of Chinese traders are doing business in Pyongyang, but the Chinese fear that if Japan and the US move too harshly against North Korea over its nuclear programme, the regime will become unstable and millions will surge across the border. "If more refugees flee to China, the Chinese government will send them back," said Mr Kim. "They won't change their policies."

On the outskirts of the village, we tramped through the snow to meet a family of three that had arrived last spring and had been living in the mountains, working in exchange for food on a farm where they catch and kill toads for traditional medicine. The parents told a now familiar story: their son had died of starvation last year, so they decided to come to China with their remaining child, a 13-year-old girl. As we talked, she played with a puppy - her only entertainment, because she cannot go to school in China.

No one knows how many other children like her are hiding in the villages and the mountains of north-eastern China, condemned to live as permanent fugitives for the crime of trying to survive.

Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for "Channel 4 News"

North Korea: the facts of life

Healthcare and education are provided according to government assessment of an individual's and family's political loyalty.
Usually only children of the elite are allowed to go to college and hold prominent jobs.
Between 1996 and 2005 more than $2bn of food aid was delivered to NK.
37 per cent of young children are clinically malnourished.
Approximately one-third of mothers are malnourished and anaemic.
A citizen can be sentenced, without judicial process, to a life of "hard labour" in mining, timber-cutting, or farming.
In 2003, the government announced that it would refrain from executing criminals in public.
In 2004, a government campaign called on men to keep their hair short, stressing the "negative effects" of long hair on "human intelligence development".
Research by Lucy Knight
Sources: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, WFP

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.
Picture: Bridgeman Images
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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)