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Published on September 30th, 2010 | by Impunity Watch Archive

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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

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