DANDONG, China—A freezing December wind rakes across northeast China, as a group of seven children sit in a circle in the living room of a missionary's Dandong apartment, a stone's throw from the border with Stalinist North Korea.
The seven boys and girls of elementary school age are playing a game with the foster mother who cares for them in spite of Chinese laws which forbid taking in a stranger's child as if it were one's own.
According to the foster father, who preferred to remain anonymous, "It is illegal [so] we are not allowed to receive any foreign aid."
"I tell others that I am taking care of my relatives’ children...It is obvious that none of their relatives can take care of these children," he said.
Many of the children in his care were left stranded after their North Korean mothers were forcibly repatriated by Chinese authorities.
Others were abandoned as their mothers fled hunger and oppression for a new life in South Korea.
"First, they called me ‘auntie,"' said Lee Eun Hye, a Chinese national of Korean ethnicity who helps care for the children.
"They said, ‘Auntie, I feel like crying...because the song you were singing speaks of longing for one’s mother.'"
According to 10-year-old Yeon Ah, who draws repeated rainbow scenes of happy children running around, her favorite story is Cinderella.
"I like it, because Cinderella’s mother passed away, but still loves her from where she is, in heaven," she said.
Asked why her drawings showed so many balloons, Yeon Ah replied: "Because balloons fly up to the sky. I wish we could fly, too, and that is why I draw balloons."
Run by a missionary foster couple, the home where Yeon Ah lives takes in ethnic Korean children or those from mixed Chinese-Korean background, some of whom are the stateless offspring of North Korean defector women and local Chinese men.
Others are the children of defectors who were born in North Korea and crossed the border with their parents, only to lose touch with them in China.
"This five-year-old child says, 'Thank you, father; thank you, mother,'" the foster father, who asked to remain anonymous, said.
"We wash her hair once every two days because it is very difficult for her to wash her own hair...She says, 'Thank you for your trouble'."
Missionary Kim Hye-Young said some of the children are in a terrible state of neglect and malnutrition when they first arrive at the home.
"When I first met her, her hair was all tangled with sweat and dust, like one big chunk of wig because she did not wash her hair," Kim said.
"I could not even touch her hair. Also, she was in her worn-out underwear covered in dirt. She did not have shoes on."
According to the home's foster father, "They tend to cough a lot and often have a fever."
"The children seem to be underdeveloped. Perhaps they might have taken a lot of medicine," he said. "They still have evidence of slow physical growth...There are no shoes in their sizes because their feet are too small."
Some children have been the victims of abuse in their own homes, like Hae In, whose North Korean mother was taken away by the authorities when she was seven, and who was tortured by her alcoholic Korean-Chinese father.
Lacking official papers
Aid workers estimate that there are about 2,000 "defector orphans" in China, with a possible total of 30,000 North Korean defectors living in hiding, mostly driven over the border to look for food and work.
"Stateless orphans," on the other hand, are born out of relationships between North Korean women and Chinese men, with their mothers subsequently deported to North Korea.
"Stateless orphans" are currently believed to number 10,000-20,000, and are unable to get an education because they lack official Chinese papers. Late registration of children without papers costs 5,000 yuan (U.S. $750), around three times the monthly salary of the average Chinese person, aid workers said.
Aid groups from the United States, South Korea, and other countries pay for some children to be registered and attend kindergarten and schools for ethnic Korean-Chinese children.
But the average monthly kindergarten tuition fees are 250 yuan (U.S. $35), with elementary school students needing a further 280 yuan a month for food, transportation, and books.
Many of the children's fathers are still in touch, but are Chinese farmers living in extreme poverty. So the missionaries educate them in Chinese, Korean, and even English.
"When we began, there was no one to teach them English," one foster parent explains. "The children are doing well. Even in China, it is now unacceptable not to know English."
Just before break-time and a meal of fried chicken and hamburgers, Hae In reads from her favorite book, which tells the story of a child whose mother was unable to visit her on a parent's day at school, and sent a letter instead.
"Our pretty daughter, I am sorry that I let you down," she reads. "I am sorry, but will you understand that I had no choice?"
"Eat the rice cake I sent you and, until I return, please just stay home and wait for me."
Young Hoon, 10, said he wants more than anything to visit his father, who lives a poverty stricken life in the mountains, making visiting difficult.
"I don’t know where my mother has gone," he said. "She went somewhere when I was four or five years old."
His classmate, 11-year-old Kyong-Hee, said she feels happiest at the park. "I can play at the playground, and I can play as I wish," she said.
"I want to be a doctor when I grow up...I want wisdom."
Punishment for defectors
Under a U.N. refugee convention, China is obliged to not force defectors back to North Korea, where they face punishment, torture, and humiliation, according to human rights observers. The punishment for defecting is three years in a labor camp and can lead to torture and execution, both for the defectors and their families.
Thousands of North Korean women who fled famine in their homeland in recent years are believed to have been sold as “brides” to Chinese men, who often put them to backbreaking labor and subject them to constant fear, physical assault, and sexual abuse.
North Korean women in China are "victims of trafficking in the way that term has come to be defined by international law," according to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, which conducted in-depth interviews with trafficked North Korean defector women in China.
"Contrary to stereotypes, however, most of the North Korean women in China are not trafficked into sexual slavery. More often they are trafficked into forced marriages," the group said in its 64-page 2009 report, Lives for Sale: Personal Accounts of Women Fleeing North Korea to China.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea also called on Beijing to prosecute human traffickers and allow thousands of North Koreans access to asylum screenings by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The report said China should ensure that marriages between North Korean women and residents of China are consensual rather than coerced, and legalize as Chinese nationals children born to North Korean women married in China.
Human rights abuses in North Korea, widely seen as one of the world’s most repressive countries, "do not stay in the confines of North Korea but spill over into neighboring countries, and inflict pain on the lives of North Korean citizens outside their borders," the report said.
The thousands of North Korean women in China, along with their children, “remain trapped in this maze of inhumanity,” the report said, adding, “As troubling as the testimony of these eyewitnesses is, it is important to note that these interviewees are, in many respects, among the fortunate women of North Korea."
Since famine struck North Korea in the 1990s, large numbers of women—mainly from northeastern North Korea—have fled across the border into China, where ethnic Korean Chinese constitute a large proportion of the population, and where men outnumber women by almost 14 to one in some regions.
Original reporting in Korean by Jin-seo Lee. Korean service director: Bong Park. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.