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Seoul: In-sook went into hiding with her daughter as soon as the pandemic hit China in 2020. The young woman had illegally entered the country by fleeing across the border from North Korea.
China had intensified its surveillance methods, meaning she could no longer continue her factory job without an official identity card. She only dared leave their safe house at night when it was harder for sophisticated facial recognition technology to hunt her down.
A North Korean soldier looks back as she and another patrol on a pathway along the bank of the Yalu River on the China-North Korea border.Credit: AP
Like many women who flee North Korea’s repressive regime into China, traffickers exploited In-sook’s precarious legal situation and sold her to a Chinese man as his wife.
When he drank alcohol, he cursed and physically abused her, prompting her to make the risky decision to run.
Unable to feed her child, she turned in desperation to a church for refuge, and then to Helping Hands Korea (HHK), a Seoul-based group who provides North Koreans with escape routes to safety.
“I’m afraid I’ll be caught by the Chinese police and repatriated to North Korea,” she told HKK, who helped mother and daughter to reach safety in South-East Asia.
In-sook’s story, recounted by HHK, is one of incredible hardship, yet she belongs to the “lucky” few North Koreans who have been able to successfully make the perilous journey through China in recent years.
Before the pandemic, more than 1000 were welcomed every year in South Korea, but that number has trickled to just 458 since 2020.
According to the UN’s envoy on human rights in North Korea, Elizabeth Salmon, and activist groups, up to 2000 defectors may currently be languishing in detention centres in China’s north-east. If forcibly repatriated, they face torture, abuse, and even death.
The pandemic offered reprieve as North Korea further sealed itself off from the world to keep the virus out.
But this week, as the reclusive regime slowly began to reopen the border by resuming flights and allowing buses to reenter, it appeared that time was running out for fearful refugees.
Salmon is reported to be “closely monitoring” the situation and, along with South Korea, has raised concerns about repatriation with China.
“The declaration of the end of COVID-19, welcomed by people around the world, could be terrible news, like a prelude to death, for North Korean escapees detained in China,” said Choe Jae-hyeong, a member of South Korea’s national assembly.
“North Korea is known for operating one of the world’s most notorious political prison camps,” he added, warning that returnees were at risk of dying from malnutrition, disease or execution, and faced sexual assault, forced abortion and forced labour.
In August, South Korea’s Unification Ministry urged China to abide by United Nations treaties and international law to protect refugees, rather than treat them as illegal immigrants. It said it would accept any North Koreans seeking shelter.
“The forcible repatriation of people against their will is a violation of the spirit and principle of the international law that bans it,” said Kim Yung-ho, the unification minister.
A North Korean soldier looks across the border with China.Credit: AP
Just days later, it was reported by American media that China had rejected South Korea’s request, although the Unification Ministry had not been formally informed of this.
The Chinese government routinely labels fleeing North Koreans “illegal economic migrants” but activists hope the upcoming Asian Games in Hangzhou may make the authorities more sensitive to international opinion.
The Chinese embassy in London said: “the Chinese government attaches great importance to and protects the legitimate rights and interests of foreign citizens in China in accordance with the law”.
It added that it “always properly handles the illegal entry of the DPRK citizens in accordance with domestic and international laws and on humanitarian grounds,” referring to North Korea’s official name – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The terrible dangers faced by defectors if they fail to escape have been well-documented by rights groups like the Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB).
The Seoul-based NKDB has recorded 8125 cases of forced repatriation of North Koreans and 32,198 cases of human rights violations inflicted on them.
These include an account of Song Hyun-ju, a young man who believes his 22-year-old sister Song Geum-ju was tortured to death in 2009.
The siblings had been arrested while trying to climb over a border fence between Inner Mongolia and China and were handed over to the North Korean security services.
Song described how he was tortured with handcuffs and wooden chairs. The official reason for his sister’s death was “nephritis”, or kidney inflammation, but he told human rights researchers that “I am sure she died because of the pain that came with the torture”.
The Telegraph, London
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