International and South Korean NGOs have inadvertently worsened the plight of tens of thousands of North Korean refugees in China by helping to stage high-profile defections into foreign embassies, according to an expert on North Korea.
In recent years, only a few North Koreans have won passage to Seoul after forcibly entering diplomatic premises, often with the help of interest groups from South Korea, Japan and the United States. But their actions have triggered harsh crackdowns by North Korean and Chinese authorities.
'Following these events, which greatly disturbed the Chinese government, we saw criminalisation of North Korean migrants. The idea was to prevent further activities and also to stop the escalation and numbers of North Koreans in China,' said Hazel Smith, who carried out a study of North Koreans living in the border area.
According to Dr Smith, of Warwick University, the new policy of deterrence and punishment had a tragic effect on those North Koreans who had made a life in China.
'Children could no longer go to school, sick people could no longer access health services otherwise they would be reported, local [Chinese] Koreans became very frightened and dissuaded from helping North Koreans and women began to see that their options were either to find a Chinese man to get married via a broker or to go into some form of the sex trade,' she said.
The drive against the North Korean community in China marks a turnaround from Beijing and Pyongyang's earlier policy of turning a blind eye to the movement of people across the border.
Since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the border into China, driven by starvation and desperate economic straits. The findings by Dr Smith reveal the tightrope nongovernmental organisations have to walk between assisting individual North Korean refugees while considering the plight of the larger group of defectors in China.
But pressure groups reject charges that they have bought the freedom of a handful of refugees at the expense of North Koreans living in China.
'This sort of action is a last resort for NGOs. The responsibility lies with the Chinese for not allowing North Korean refugees to access formal routes to get out of China,' said Kang Yeo-kyong, of the South Korean aid agency Good Friends, which works with refugees from the North.
Many NGOs have been explicit about their ultimate aim of wanting to destabilise the regime in North Korea, and have organised the foreign embassy invasions as a weapon in this fight.
Seoul, which is often criticised for not doing enough to help North Korean defectors in China, has complained that it has been left to pick up the pieces following actions by the advocacy groups.