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‘The so-called “push factors” for them to risk everything and leave North Korea are growing, just as the barriers to their exit are being strengthened. For the tens of thousands of refugees in Northeast China—seen by Chinese authorities as ‘illegal economic migrants’—life also remains in a permanent state of limbo.

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‘I came out of North Korea on foot, in winter,’ she recalls of the journey.

‘The snow was piled up to about knee height.’ Yu-mi (a pseudonym) was born in Musan, a mining city on the Chinese border.

Now studying at the Hangkuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, Yu-mi is just one of tens of thousands of North Koreans who have fled the country since the famine of the mid-1990s, swelling the south’s émigré community to more than 21,000.

A greater number—activists estimate somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000—continue to live as refugees in China, procuring food for their relatives or awaiting their chance to escape to the south.

‘The Beijing government in general has a very deep-seated fear of any sort of instability,’ says Peters, a Michigan native who first moved to Korea as a young missionary in the mid-1970s.

‘The potential for hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of North Korean refugees to come across the border into China constitutes a threat to the stability of Northeast China.’ He adds that the situation has only worsened following the recent series of uprisings in the Middle East, which both Chinese and North Korean leaders feel could have a ‘viral’ effect on their own societies.

‘I couldn’t go to church, because in Chinese churches there were North Korean spies,’ he says.

Jeong Yu-mi says her own aunt was caught four times by the Chinese authorities, and is now, presumably, incarcerated in the North.

‘The authorities were hunting us,’ says Hyeon Bu-heong, a 24-year-old defector who lived for five years in Yanji and Shenyang before arriving in South Korea.

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