Death Stalks North Korean Defectors

China is accused of putting the lives of North Korean refugees in danger.
2012-03-05
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South Korean rights activists shout slogans outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul demanding that Beijing scrap plans to repatriate North Korean refugees, Feb. 21, 2012.
AFP

Most North Korean refugees detained in China face death if they are repatriated home, a rights group warned Monday, accusing Beijing of being "complicit in pre-meditated murder."

"We are at a critical point in this fight for the lives of the North Korean refugees and urgent action and attention is needed," Suzanne Scholte, chairwoman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, told a congressional hearing in Washington.

"If we do not convince China to reverse its repatriation policy and work with the international community on this issue, the refugees in China’s custody face death," she said at the hearing held by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

She said the situation facing the latest batch of between 30 and 40 North Koreans refugees detained in China following the December death of dictator Kim Jong Il was "even more critical" as "most face execution."

Factors

Scholte cited three factors:

-- Kim's successor son Kim Jung Un's regime had warned that the entire family and relatives of those who fled the country during the 100-day mourning period would be annihilated.

-- Among those detained in China are those who have family members who have successfully defected to South Korea, the North's arch enemy.

-- China is providing information to Pyongyang about the intentions of the refugees it has arrested, informing North Korean security agents if these refugees were trying to flee to South Korea.

"Because of this collusion, the Chinese government is complicit in premeditated murder because it knows that those refugees, when repatriated to North Korea, face execution," said Scholte, whose group comprises 70 public member organizations representing Americans and both South and North Koreans.

Underlining the seriousness of the situation, she said the parents of a 19-year-old girl arrested in China have pleaded that their daughter be allowed to commit suicide rather than be repatriated to North Korea.

Scholte cited defectors as saying that China uses a different color stamp on the interrogation papers for those defectors who were attempting to get to South Korea.

"China is literally marking these refugees for death before they are repatriated."

Tens of thousands

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, estimated that there are thousands or tens of thousands of North Korean refugees in China.

They risked their lives to cross the border into China because of starvation, economic deprivation or political persecution, he said.

According to the testimonies and reports received by Scarlatoiu's panel, the North Koreans who returned to their country "endure cruel and inhuman punishment including beatings, torture, detention, forced labor, sexual violence, and in the case of women suspected of becoming pregnant in China, forced abortions or infanticide.

"Some have even been executed."

Yet, to China, he said, all North Koreans are "economic migrants," and over the years, it has forcibly returned "tens of thousands to conditions of danger."

Although China is a state party to the U.N. Refugee Convention, it has prevented the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR, from gaining access to North Koreans in China.

US role

Scarlatoiu said the United States should encourage UNHCR to raise its profile on this issue, lending full support to UNHCR’s appeals and proposals to China and mobilizing other governments to do likewise.

The United States should also consider promoting a multilateral approach to the problem of North Koreans leaving their country, he said.

Their exodus affects not only China and South Korea but also countries in East and Southeast Asia, East and West Europe as well as Mongolia and the United States, he said.

T. Kumar, the Washington-based international advocacy director of Amnesty International, said there have even been reports of North Korean authorities crossing the border into China to “detain” some North Korean border-crossers and “abduct” them back to North Korea.

He said North Korean border-crossers in China also live in appalling conditions and are vulnerable to physical, emotional and sexual exploitation.

They "are in a very precarious situation," he said, adding that some "are vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination" and "forced into begging."

Those who have been in touch with South Korean nationals or with religious groups while in China are also at "great risk of being sent to political prison camps," he said.

Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.