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The perilous escape from North Korea

ICC Note: The North Korean government continues to punish its citizens that have attempted to escape to China .

By Nicholas Kristof

6/8/07 North Korea (TimesDaily) — … North Koreans who have escaped to the “free world” — China — … are now at constant risk of being captured by Chinese police. The Chinese government, in a disgraceful breach of its obligations under the 1951 Refugees Convention, hands these escapees back to North Korea , where they face beatings and imprisonment, occasionally even execution. …

The North Korean authorities used to detain citizens returned by China for a few weeks or months and then release them after a bit of “re-education.” But about a year ago, North Korea greatly increased the penalties.

Now, those returned by China are often sentenced to prison for several years, and repeat offenders or Christians can be sent with their entire families to labor camps for life.

Some North Koreans told me that their government now holds regular sentencing rallies, at which the punishments are publicly announced — or in extreme cases, such as those who became Christian evangelists while in China , the accused are executed in front of the crowd by firing squad.

One Christian I spoke to had been beaten so badly after his return by China that he tried to commit suicide by swallowing a handful of pins. The prison, not wanting to have to dispose of a corpse, freed him — and he eventually made his way back to China .

“If he is sent back again,” said his wife, “he’ll be beaten to death.”

China has also increased its punishments for its own citizens who are caught helping North Koreans. The penalty used to be a fine, but now it is jail for a year or two — or for a decade or more if someone smuggles escapees to South Korea .

“Now most Chinese don’t dare help the Koreans,” said one local official who secretly protects a safe house full of North Koreans — and who even stood guard outside as I interviewed them. “But I feel so badly for them. They’re just wretched.” …

Chinese and South Korean missionaries are also beginning to evangelize secretly in North Korea , a sign of weakening government control. One Chinese Christian I talked to had made four trips into North Korea to evangelize. “If I’d been caught, I don’t think I would have been executed,” she said, “but it wouldn’t have been good.” …

(For the full story, go to TimesDaily)