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.
Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile