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Officials accept ransom payments; refugees gain freedom after tense negotiations.

Compass Direct

June 14

Communist authorities in Laos arrested 10 North Korean refugees and two South Korean activists in late May as they attempted to reach safety in neighboring Thailand , a South Korean newspaper reported on Friday (June 9).

After almost two weeks of tense negotiations with officials, the refugees were released into the hands of South Korean embassy staff on Saturday (June 10).

Lao police arrested the first group, consisting of eight refugees and one activist, in northern Luang Namtha province on May 31. A second group of two refugees and their activist guide was arrested at around the same time.

The refugees were identified as Cha Song-chol (male, 53); Cheon Yong-kum (female, 58); Cha Kwang-su (male, 25); Kim Kyong-suk (female, 71); Chu Hi-ok (female, 40); Yim Jong-suk (female, 36); Shim Yong-kum, (female, 35); Park Yong-nan (female, 26); Jeon Song-hi (female, 26) and Kim Jong-ae (female, 35).

The two South Korean activists were identified as Kim Hee-tae and Shin Sang Hwa, both believed to be Christians.

The religious background of the 10 North Korean defectors was unknown at press time.

Aside from a few “show” churches in Pyongyang , the practice of Christianity is outlawed in North Korea . Yet the Rev. Tim Peters of the Seoul-based charity Helping Hands Korea believes the church is alive and well, with an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Christians still living in the country.

Statistics are notoriously difficult to come by in any restricted situation, Peters cautioned in a recent phone interview, “but Christian history shows us that wherever you have persecution, the church is flourishing.”

Rising Tide of Refugees

Leaving North Korea without official permission is a serious crime. Security guards closely question all refugees who are forcibly returned; many are tortured and/or imprisoned. Those who return with a Bible or admit having contact with Christians in China face certain torture and imprisonment, and, in some extreme cases, execution.

Despite these risks, hundreds of North Koreans continue to cross the border into China , seeking relief from the brutalities of the regime.

Thousands of North Korean refugees are living in China . Without legal citizenship, however, they are constantly at risk of being arrested and sent back home. The Chinese government recently increased the “bounty” payable for turning in a North Korean refugee from 1,000 yuan (US$125) to 3,000 yuan (US$374).

“The Chinese are extremely serious about ferreting out North Koreans,” Peters confirmed.

According to Peters, China forcibly repatriates an average of 500 North Koreans every month, sometimes as many as 200 per week.

Urgent Intervention

Fearing that the refugees in Laos might suffer the same fate, human rights groups sought urgent intervention from the United Nations, as well as from the U.S. and South Korean governments. When all efforts failed, a representative of Helping Hands Korea paid a ransom of US$500 per head for eight of the refugees; another activist ransomed the other two.

In return, Lao officials issued a certificate to each refugee on June 2, giving them seven days to report to the South Korean embassy in the capital, Vientiane .

On June 3, however, police in the neighboring province of Luang Prabang re-arrested the 10 and held them in an immigration detention center in Pang Mong township. Local police argued that the refugees should be turned over to the North Korean embassy in Vientiane .

Several days of tense negotiations followed, with a wide range of non-governmental organizations pressing the Lao and South Korean governments to grant asylum to the refugees.

After almost two weeks of negotiation, the Lao government allowed South Korean embassy staff to collect the refugees from Pang Mong.

‘Economic Migrants’

Most refugees in China are not as fortunate. China has a mutual repatriation agreement with North Korea . Under this agreement, North Korean refugees are labeled “economic migrants” and forcibly returned to their country of origin.

As “economic migrants,” the defectors do not qualify for assistance from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). China has repeatedly turned down UNHCR requests for access to border areas.

Multiple interviews with the refugees, however, show clear evidence of severe and widespread human rights abuses. Refugees report brainwashing tactics; tight control of movement; harsh labor requirements; imprisonment of up to three generations of a family for minor infractions; and severe shortages of food, medical care and other basic necessities.

In her memoir, Eyes of the Tailless Animals, former prisoner Soon Ok Lee described forced labor, torture, harassment and forced abortions in one of North Korea ’s notorious labor camps. She also said Christians were singled out for particular punishment – an observation which led Soon to adopt Christianity following her unprecedented release from the labor camp.

Long Road to Freedom

Several human rights groups are involved in an “underground railroad” transporting North Koreans out of China via several Asian routes to safety in third countries. Most refugees choose South Korea as a final destination. The United States welcomed its first North Korean asylum seekers in May of this year.

Peters requested prayer for Christian activists who put their own freedom at risk to help the refugees.

Addressing China ’s treatment of North Korean refugees is an important first step towards an international solution, according to Peters. Everyone wants a piece of China ’s booming economy – but the refugee issue pits politics and lucrative trade agreements against human rights issues, and the pocketbook usually wins.

“We need to link trade with human rights issues,” Peters insisted. “International trading partners need to take a real hard look at their own policies towards China .”

As for the regime change predicted by some North Korean observers, he said, “There’s just no way you can predict with meaningful accuracy, because there are so many factors involved.”

Desperation is clearly growing. Peters said 95 percent of those who have escaped North Korea since 1953 have done so in the past five or six years, with a clear increase from 2002 onwards. At the same time, it has been reported that the amount of refugees declined for the first time in 2005 as the difficulty of crossing the border increased.

“I personally feel we’re within a year or two of some type of seismic shift in North Korea ,” Peters added. “But we should be aware that China is not sitting idly by. They’re moving in – building infrastructure, buying access to North Korean ports for shipping, propping up the North Korean economy for their own purposes.

“These signs are extremely troubling.”