North Korean Refugees: The Forgotten People


Nameless North Korean refugees (Photo Courtesy of Chosun Newspaper)

By Joseph Juhn
Impunity Watch, Asia

SEOUL, South Korea – North Korean refugees who escaped the country’s authoritarian regime have many untold stories.

Sometime in July, Choi Young-hee, a woman in her 70s, offered smugglers some cash to carry her across the heavily guarded Tuman river that separates North Korea from China.

Soon, her daughter also tried to cross, but was caught and is now in a North Korean political prison, where she can potentially face hard labor, torture, or even death.

North Korea is known as one of the worst violators of human rights in the world. Seeking a better life and liberty, countless individuals attempt to flee the nation that is currently under the leadership of one of the most notorious dictators, Kim Jong-il.

Any North Korean defector who is caught face extraordinary hardships. If they are women, the story can be even worse.

Many surveys and newspaper accounts show that 90 percent of those who are able to evade Chinese border guards and police are sold and trafficked. If the refugees are captured by Chinese authorities, they are forcibly repatriated to North Korea in violation of international law, where they will be locked up in a political concentration camp for imprisonment, beatings, torture, and sometimes a public execution.

The primary motivation of the defectors arises from hunger. Congressman Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) said at the hearing held by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on September 23 that this summer’s food shortages in North Korea were reportedly as bad as in the 1990s, when estimated up to 2 million people starved to death.

“I thought that once I went to China my children would not starve to death, and that is why I crossed the Tumen River, but once we arrived on the other side, what awaited us were fear of capture by Chinese security officials and forced repatriation back to North Korea,” said Ms. Mi Sun Bahng, one of North Korean refugees who eventually made it to the West and freedom.

In describing her encounter with Chinese brokers when she first crossed the river, she said, “I was separated from my children and sold for 4,000 yuan, [approximately, US$594]. What was most infuriating was that these Chinese [traffickers] called [us] North Korean defector-women ‘pigs,’ and treated us like animals.”

In a period of a few months, Ms. Bahng was “sold three times like livestock.” She managed to escape but in the course of looking for her children, she was captured by Chinese authorities and was repatriated to North Korea.

She witnessed horrors in prison. Ms. Bahng saw her inmates, who were dying of hunger, trying to catch insects, among many other things, to eat for survival.

“To this day I have unending nightmares of the people I saw there, those who would be working out in the fields and if they saw a snake or a frog would catch them and swallow them whole; there were people who would be defecating and if a piece of radish came out they would immediately wipe it on their sleeves and eat it; if there were pieces of beans or kernels of corn found in cow manure, the person who found them would consider that day to be their lucky day.”

Currently, China does not recognize the North Korean defectors as refugees and it also won’t allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to them.

For more information, please see:

The Epoch Times – North Korean Defectors Give Grim Testimony of Experiences with China – 29 September 2010

AFP – US lawmaker presses China, India over human trafficking – 30 September 2010

The Washington Times – Repatriation policy links China to rights violations – 23 September 2010

Deadly Riot in Gang-Run Prison

By R. Renee Yaworsky
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

CARACAS, Venezuela—A deadly riot inside one of Venezuela’s overcrowded prisons has left 16 people dead and another 35 injured.  This marks the second time violence has erupted at this prison just this week alone.

According to prison official Consuelo Cerrada, the riot occurred Wednesday between rival gangs vying for power within the Tocoron prison in Aragua state, 75 miles south of Caracas.  The fighting lasted for eight hours while inmates fired automatic weapons and hurled grenades at other inmates and guards.  Local police were unable to take control of the combat until the riot began to subside of its own accord.

It is believed that the riot was sparked by the murder of a gang leader earlier this week.  Six of the wounded are still hospitalized.  Four of the injured were women relatives of inmates who were hit by stray bullets while anxiously awaiting news outside the prison.

On Monday of this week three inmates were murdered and four correctional officers were injured at the same prison in a separate display of violence.

The Tocoron prison has yet to release an official statement on the riot and inmates’ families have demanded answers; some relatives have created blockades on nearby roads to protest the lack of information.

Venezuela’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded and plagued by incessant gang violence.  About 40,000 inmates live in prisons that were constructed to hold only 15,000.

According to Venezuelan Prison Watch, an organization against prison violence, over 220 inmates died in the country’s substandard prisons in just the first quarter of 2010 alone.  Gangs in Venezuela’s prisons battle over control of the cellblocks and the trade of weapons and drugs.

Earlier this month thousands of prisoners throughout the country protested poor prison conditions and human rights violations by guards by joining a hunger strike.

The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights has asked Venezuela to increase security and protect the human rights of inmates in the country’s prisons.

For more information, please see:

AP-16 inmates killed in prison riot in Venezuela-30 September 2010

Gather-Gang Battle in Venezuela Prison: Ten Dead-30 September 2010

Americas Quarterly-Gun Battle Grips Venezuelan Prison-30 September 2010

BBC-Ten die in Venezuela prison gang battle-29 September 2010

Croatia Limits Humans Rights Of The Mentally Disabled

By Ricardo Zamora
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

ZAGREB, Croatia – The conclusion of a recent human rights report suggests that the Croatian government is forcing individuals with intellectual or mental disabilities to live in institutions which deprive them of their privacy, autonomy, and dignity.  The government has failed to provide alternative care options as promised to the European Union and the United Nations, according to Human Rights Watch.

The report, “Once You Enter, You Never Leave: Deinstitutionalization of Persons with Intellectual or Mental Disabilities in Croatia,” reveals the lives and living conditions endured by over 9,000 intellectually or mentally disabled people living in these institutions.

“Imagine always having to ask permission to leave the place where you live, having no privacy to take a shower, and no chance to decide what to eat or when to go to bed,” said Amanda McRae, fellow with the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report.  “This is the reality for thousands of people living in institutions in Croatia,” she added.

While community-based programs in other countries show effectiveness in offering disabled persons a better quality of life than those living in institutions, Croatia has resisted in implementing such programs.  This resistance runs contrary to its position among the first countries to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  The UN Convention expressly provides disabled persons the basic right to live in the community.  The report recommends that Croatia replace institutions with community-based programs in order to remain consistent with the Convention’s provisions.

“Real leadership on this issue will require a serious and sustained commitment to provide community-based housing and support for people with disabilities,” said McRae.

While up to 30 percent of persons live in these institutions by choice, Human Rights Watch cautions that such a choice is meaningless due to the lack of alternative options.

There are currently over 4,000 people with mental disabilities residing in institutions within Croatia.  While there are some community-based programs for the mentally disabled, there are only sufficient resources to support 16 people.  Similarly, while 5,000 people with intellectual disabilities are institutionalized, community-based resources for the intellectually disabled are able to support only 250 people.

The Croatian government plan for deinstitutionalization is part of its preparations for EU membership.  However, those plans have not yet been made public.  In the meantime, the number of institutionalized people continues to grow.

For more information, please see:

The Open Society Mental Health Initiative – Living Proof: The Right to Live In The Community – September 27, 2010

Human Rights Watch – Croatia: Locked Up, Limited Lives – September 23, 2010

UNHCR – Croatia: Unfulfilled Promises to Persons With Disabilities – September 8, 2010