I was surprised to see the change in a female North Korean defector I met when I saw her again recently after only a month and a half.
When we last met in April, she used such derogatory North Korean terms as “Ilbon-nom” (Japanese guys) and “Nam Joson” (South Korea) each time Japan was the topic.
This time, however, she used such neutral expressions as “Ilbon saram” (Japanese) and “Hanguk” (South Korea).
Asked what she thought about Americans and Japanese in April, she replied harshly, “Yankees and damn Japs are our enemies. Nam Joson has been deceived by the damn Americans.”
The woman secretly fled to China last summer, leaving behind her family in a North Korean village.
She said she finished paying all $1,000 (79,600 yen) to a broker who coordinated her defection from what she had earned working at a restaurant in northeast China.
However, she did not have enough money to acquire a forged identification card, she added. She has not made friends yet, either, because “I do not need them now,” she said.
Her monthly salary of 1,500 yuan (18,950 yen, or $235) is much lower than a Chinese colleague who started working after she was hired, she said.
Even if her life here is neither completely free nor affluent, “I want to continue to live in China,” she said.
Her fashion sense had also changed.
She wore a brightly patterned light-colored shirt and slim trousers, compared with the dark-colored sweat suit she was wearing the last time.
She has gentle eyes.
“I want to have Japanese cosmetics,” she said.
In China, news reports on North Korea, a friendly nation, are limited depending on the content.
Still, the woman may have learned about the dire conditions in North Korea and the misinformation the government spreads, through her fellow countrymen and women and work colleagues, which may have led to her change.
Listening to her story, I recalled seeing the North Korean young women who attended the ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung, founding father and former president of North Korea, in April in Dandong.
It would have been hard to tell that they were from North Korea unless they were wearing Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il badges or clad in traditional dress.
They were taking memorial photos with friends, which reminded me of Japanese youth taking photos at tourist spots.
But when it comes to responding to questions, they differed from their Japanese counterparts.
Asked about the anniversary, everyone gave the same reply, wearing innocent smiles: “Nothing could give me more pleasure.”
One reason for this were the sharp-eyed elderly man and woman in attendance, officials who keep an eye on the residents. But the women's responses were so natural that I was convinced they had been drilled into them in their home country.
North Korea suffered from serious economic difficulties during the 1990s, following the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, with which the North had close economic ties.
Today, a broker for defectors said, “Fewer North Koreans have fled to China these days.”
But at the U.N. Human Rights Council in February, South Korea urged neighboring countries “to respect the principle of non-refoulement,” which forbids turning over North Korean defectors.
In early May, security forces in Yanbian in Jilin province, where illegal border crossings take place, told Chinese newspaper reporters that it would launch a massive crackdown on “illegal immigrants, residents and workers,” which would continue until October.
It suggested there had been a continuous flow of North Korean defectors into China due to starvation and poverty.
China has taken the stand that it “deals with the issue in the light of domestic and human rights laws” and has not publicly acknowledged whether it has forcibly repatriated North Korean defectors.
However, a Chinese researcher who is often asked to advise government officials, said, “Learning that defectors were returned even after South Korea protested, which caused many of them to be jailed or killed, the government allowed some defectors to go to South Korea.”
“There are some contradictions in Chinese policies,” the researcher said. “It has to deal with North Korea while thinking about human rights.”
The researcher said he had suggested to government officials that those who married in or have made their livelihoods in China should be granted residency in China.
Another Chinese researcher of China-North Korean studies has been interviewing North Korean defectors about their lives here and has kept making suggestions for improving their status to the Chinese government, despite harsh criticism for being too close to the North.
The North Korea problem requires a cautious approach in China. It is not easy for a researcher to directly criticize government policies.
Even reporters who go to the Chinese-North Korean border face silent pressure from local security forces, who visit their hotels.
News sources sometimes suggest meeting at an “inconspicuous place.”
Despite such obstacles, researchers who are concerned about the status quo of North Korea and question China’s response continue to press the government to improve the situation, showing research results they obtained through their fieldwork.
They also willingly agree to interviews with foreign media.
Talking with such people as these researchers and the female defector I mentioned in the beginning, I strongly feel I should take to heart in covering North Korea and China that the government and its people are different. That's only common sense in Japan, but not always easy to remember.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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