Rights group protests China’s repatriation of North Korean escapees

Daily rallies in New York coincide with Beijing Olympics in hopes of drawing attention to refugee rights.
By Jaeduk Seo
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Rights group protests China’s repatriation of North Korean escapees Activists protest China's repatriation of North Korean refugees in New York City's Times Square, Sunday Feb. 6, 2021.

With much of the world focused on the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, a U.S.-based group is trying to draw attention to China’s policy of detaining and forcibly repatriating North Koreans, who face severe punishment and even death once returned home.  

The North Korean Human Rights Exhibition Association plans protest every day in New York through Feb. 22, two days after the close of the Games, to highlight the plight of escapees who risk it all to cross over to China in search of a better life.

Koo Hoin, the head of the group, told RFA’s Korean Service that while he strongly supports the U.S. government’s diplomatic boycott of the Olympics, additional pressure should be brought to bear on China to change its policy of returning North Koreans to their homeland.

Koo, who was forcibly repatriated from China in 1999, said the U.S., South Korea and the United Nations should actively advocate for the protection of North Koreans outside of its borders.

“We then need to tell China that we know where the refugee is imprisoned and make them release the refugee. Then we need to tell China to send those refugees to South Korea or the U.S. and tell them that we welcome them here. There must be practical solutions like these,” he said.

Repatriated escapees face a grim fate, and China knows this, Victor Park, a Korean-American pastor who protested Sunday told RFA.

“As citizens of the United States, we can convey our voices in a free country. The Olympics aren’t just for China. They are for freedom around the world,” Park said. “To give freedom to North Korean refugees and to make peace by not persecuting other peoples is the real Olympic Games that China should do.”

The North Korean Human Rights Exhibition Association said the protest will be held for two hours each day, starting at 1 p.m. in front of the Chinese Consulate on weekdays and in Times Square on weekends.

Michael Slaveski, a Montreal resident who was visiting New York on Sunday, told RFA he did not know that North Koreans are forcibly repatriated. But Slaveski, who was born in the Soviet Union, said it was not surprising, given that China is a communist country.

Established in 2004, the North Korean Human Rights Exhibition Association holds photo exhibitions, book exhibitions and movie screenings in New York and Los Angeles to raise awareness of human rights abuses in North Korea.

Although the Chinese government has pledged to adhere to the U.N. convention that forbids countries to return refugees to their home countries if they will face serious threats to their life or freedom, the group contends it regards North Korean escapees as illegal immigrants.

Beijing claims it must return North Koreans found to be illegally within Chinese territory under two bilateral border and immigration pacts.

The United Nations recently published a letter it sent to the Chinese government in August 2021, expressing concern about the fate of the 1,170 North Koreans believed to be in Chinese custody in preparation for repatriation.

RFA reported in July that 50 North Koreans were loaded onto buses in the Chinese border city of Dandong and taken across the Yalu River. Sources said many Chinese onlookers showed hostility to the police, warning that they were effectively sending the refugees to their deaths.

Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans fled to China to escape a mid-1990s famine, with about 30,000 making their way to South Korea. As many as 60,000 North Koreans remain in China, despite having no legal status. Some have married Chinese nationals.

RFA reported in August that police had begun actively arresting North Korean spouses of Chinese nationals after a long period of time during which they were treated leniently.

Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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