North Korean refugees who cross the border into China are frequently arrested as illegal immigrants and held in prison camps under inhuman conditions, pending repatriation where they face labor camp and possible execution.
"All these events took place in a camp in Tumen area," Ki-sook Lee, 43, a defector now living in South Korea, said in an interview.
Lee, who was born in Moosan, North Hamgyung Province in North Korea was forcibly sent back to North Korea twice before she settled in South Korea.
"From the outside, the camp looks very luxurious and sophisticated. But the inside is smelly and inhumane," Lee said, adding that she was reluctant even to think about her experiences there. "The toilets overflow and they are out of order because of water shortages."
She said guards forced her and her daughter to strip down to their underwear when they arrived at the prison, confiscating their outer clothes and money.
"We were not even allowed to wear shoes. And my daughter Eunkyung started her period but the prison did not even allow us to keep feminine napkins," Lee said.
While Lee's pleas to keep the meager 200 yuan (U.S.$24) she had brought back from China fell on deaf ears, a cell-mate at the camp showed her how to hide money inside her body.
"Money is like life in North Korea. She even taught me how to fold and hide money in a woman's genitals. One thing we did not know was that there were surveillance cameras in the cell," she said.
Immediately after, female prison guards took the two women and adolescent girl for a forced internal body search. "They started to search our bodies for money, even my young daughter. I told them that I did not have any money but they kept searching. And a female soldier took money from Soon's genitals, a mere 200 yuan," Lee said. "It is very little money for Chinese but they took it anyway. What they did to us was not something a human being could possibly do."
Lee first crossed the border into the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin in 1996 with her husband, looking to sell her labor in exchange for rice to feed her starving family. She has been happily settled in Seoul since last year with her entire family.
As many as 300,000 North Koreans are believed to live in hiding in China, where they frequently suffer abuse and exploitation. Beijing is obliged under the terms of a U.N. refugee convention not to force defectors back to North Korea Some attempt to enter South Korean diplomatic missions, or leave China for a third country in the hope of winning passage to South Korea eventually.
Two North Korean children recently failed in their attempt to enter the South Korean Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, their mother told RFA.
Observers estimate that four to five North Koreans arrive in Ho Chi Minh City every month, but anyone caught helping them can get into trouble with the Vietnamese authorities.
"According to Vietnamese law, no defection is allowed," one Korean-Vietnamese told RFA's Korean service. "So the Consulate, along with various Korean societies or churches, protect those North Koreans for a while and then send them to Cambodia."
The mother of the 16 year-old girl and the 14 year-old boy, Sookja Lee, said she was devastated at having to leave her children behind to escape to Seoul.
"Even when the whole family was forced to go to back to North Korea in 2002, we were together in a prison. I was able to protect my kids," she said. "But this time, we had to leave first because we had to go through a third country. I feel terribly sorry and my heart is in a thousand pieces. I just hope the kids can overcome all the difficulties and come to South Korea safely."
A South Korean consular official told RFA that the children would be helped if only they could find their way through the gates of the compound, which are patrolled by Vietnamese guards.