Authorities in the southern Chinese region of Guangxi have sentenced a Japanese man to eight months in prison for people-smuggling after he tried to help two North Korean refugees leave China.

The Chongzuo city Intermediate People's Court handed down the sentence Monday to Takayuki Noguchi, who was arrested in the region on Dec. 10. It also fined him 20,000 yuan (U.S.$2,400) and confiscated his belongings, according to a ruling posted on the court's Web site.

Noguchi, who was working for the Tokyo-based Life Funds for North Korean Refugees aid organization, flew to the northeastern city of Dalian near the North Korean border to meet the two refugees.

Along with a Chinese man, Xu Chunyu, they traveled to Guangxi where Noguchi was supposed to hand the North Koreans over to another man who would take them to an unspecified third country, and eventually to Japan, it said.

The North Korean couple, who had returned to North Korea from Japan in 1960 during a mass repatriation of North Korean nationals, has now been returned to the closed Stalinist state, Hiroshi Kato, an official at Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, told reporters.

Police arrested the four at a hotel in Nanning, Guangxi's capital, the ruling said. It said Noguchi hasn't decided whether to appeal, but a court official said the six months he has already spent in detention would be counted towards his sentence, giving him a release date of Aug. 9.

China, which fought alongside the North during the 1950-53 Korean War, has an agreement with its neighbor to repatriate illegal North Korean migrants. But Beijing has allowed dozens of North Korean asylum-seekers who have managed to gain access to foreign embassies and consulates in China to leave for South Korea via third countries in recent years.

As many as 300,000 North Koreans are believed to live in hiding in China, where they frequently suffer abuse and exploitation.

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 execution, both for the defector and their families. #####


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