One of the toes protrudes a full inch further than the others from a purple, grotesquely bloated foot that has swollen to the size of a small melon.
The world’s finest surgeons would struggle to save Kim Kuk-wha, 50, from the amputation of substantial parts of her severely frostbitten feet. But as a North Korean refugee in China, Ms Kim was forced to travel nearly 3,000km to a third country before seeking proper medical attention – driven by the fear of being sent home to face a potentially fearsome punishment.
Ms Kim’s plight, shown in photographs seen by the Financial Times, reflects a growing crackdown on border security by governments in Pyongyang and Beijing.
This has forced refugees to take ever more dangerous routes to avoid detection – in the case of Ms Kim and her son, a three-day trek in January through mountainous Chinese terrain in sub-zero temperatures. Ms Kim is now receiving treatment in a southeast Asian country, which the FT agreed not to name at the request of a person close to her.
China’s policy of forcibly repatriating all illegal immigrants from North Korea was condemned on Monday in a report by a UN commission set up to investigate North Korean human rights abuses.
It urged Beijing to abandon the policy, warning that “persons who are forcibly repatriated from China are commonly subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, summary execution and other forms of sexual violence”.
China’s foreign ministry rejected this “unreasonable criticism” yesterday, telling reporters: “We believe that politicising human rights issues is not conducive towards improving a country’s human rights.”
Instead of softening its policy, China has been tightening security at the border and in surrounding areas, according to activists who work with North Korean refugees. They say the crackdown has been happening for several years, but has been particularly pronounced since the entry into power of Kim Jong Un in December 2011 – a possible reflection of what some analysts perceive as concern in Beijing about the increased risk of instability under a young, inexperienced leader.
Sokeel Park, research director of Liberty in North Korea, a Seoul-based non-governmental organisation, says that interviews with recent defectors indicate increased use by Chinese authorities of electric fences, cameras and motion detectors in areas close to vulnerable sections of the border.
Security has also increased on the North Korean side, he adds, with the use of guards from elite units perceived to be more loyal to the regime.
The crackdown appears to have succeeded in reducing the number of successful escapes. While it is not known how many people have escaped to China, only about 1,500 North Koreans have arrived in South Korea in each of the past two years. This compares with an annual average of 2,678 in the previous five years.
China defended its policy on repatriation in a letter to the UN commission, which was included in the report at Beijing’s request, and stressed its desire to maintain “the stability of the Korean peninsula”.
“[North Korean] citizens who have entered China illegally do it for economic reasons. Therefore they are not refugees,” said the letter from Wu Haitao, China’s ambassador to the UN office in Geneva.
China has become increasingly immune to international criticism of its own human rights record and more willing to unapologetically push back in the face of such criticism.
“The thing that’s changed is, in the wake of the global financial crisis, the Communist party believes its model has been proven successful and that liberal market democracy is inferior,” says Geremie Barmé, director of the Australian Centre on China in the World.
Media reports, backed up by testimony from activists, suggest a sudden increase in the Chinese security presence in the border regions following the execution in December of Jang Song Thaek, Mr Kim’s uncle and top adviser, sparking speculation about a possible power struggle. “There were police with submachine guns in Yanji,” one activist says, referring to a city of 400,000 in northeast China.
Additional reporting by Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
因为这些管控措施，朝鲜难民不得不选择比以往更危险的路线偷渡，以免被边防人员发现。就Kim Kuk-wha及其儿子的例子而言，他们今年1月进入中国时，冒着零度以下的低温，在边境线中方一侧的山区跋涉了3天。目前，Kim Kuk-wha正在东南亚某国接受治疗，英国《金融时报》应她身边的人要求，答应不透露这个国家的名称。
为朝鲜难民提供帮助的一些活动人士称，中国非但没有软化其政策，而是一直在收紧边境及临近地区的安全管控。他们说，中国的边境管控已持续多年，但在2011年12月金正恩(Kim Jong Un)掌权后，中国方面明显加大了收紧力度。分析人士认为，这可能反映出北京方面的担心——在这位欠缺经验的年轻领袖的领导下，朝鲜更有可能发生动荡。
总部位于首尔的非政府组织“自由朝鲜”(Liberty in North Korea)的研究总监Sokeel Park表示，最近一些“脱北者”接受采访时透露的信息表明，中国当局在中朝边境容易发生偷渡的地区，部署了更多的电网、摄像头和运动探测器。
中华全球研究中心(Australian Centre on China in the World)主任白杰明(Geremie Barmé)表示：“一个变化了的情况是，在全球金融危机之后，中共相信，其模式已被证明是成功的，自由市场民主模式不如中国模式。”
媒体报道称，去年12月张成泽(Jang Song Thaek)被处决之后，中国突然加大了中朝边境地区的安全管控，这些报道得到了活动人士的佐证。张成泽既是金正恩的姑父，也曾是后者的最高顾问，他遭处决引发了外界对于朝鲜国内可能发生权力斗争的猜测。一名活动人士表示：“延吉当时出现了许多持冲锋枪的警察。”延吉是中国东北一座拥有40万人口的城市。