Seven North Koreans were recently caught and detained in China while attempting to escape across the border.
“China should not send these seven people back to North Korea, where they face torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and other horrors,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), according to a May 14 announcement by the New York-based rights organization. “Beijing should immediately allow them to travel to a third country.”
The escapees, who included a pre-teen girl, were detained by Chinese authorities in China’s northern Liaoning Province on April 28.
South Korean media reported on the status of the North Koreans on April 29, after the South Korean-based human rights advocacy group Justice for North Korea issued a statement saying that the seven were arrested while in a hideout, outside of the Liaoning capital of Shenyang City.
The group identified the pre-teen girl by her last name, Choi, who along with her uncle surnamed Kang, crossed the China-North Korea border in early April.
News of their detention was revealed after Choi’s mother, who lives in South Korea, contacted the South Korean consulate in Shenyang after losing contact with her daughter during the weekend prior to April 29.
Justice for North Korea founder Peter Jung, while speaking to Radio Free Asia (RFA), said that Choi’s mother also visited South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in South Korea, in an attempt to save her daughter.
“Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Status of Refugees, [China] should protect Choi and stop forced repatriation,” Jung said.
The South Korean foreign ministry said it took “all possible measures” and “necessary action” after receiving news of the case, according to an April 30 article by South Korea’s English-language newspaper The Korean Times. The ministry added that it couldn’t elaborate on details, because of concerns for the safety of the escapees.
“China should end its complicity with North Korean rights violations by ending the practice of forcing back fleeing North Koreans,” Robertson said.
HRW pointed out that in 2010, Pyongyang adopted a decree making defections a crime of “treachery against the nation,” which is punishable by death. If not executed upon their return, escapees are often punished by being sent to either a political prison camp or an ordinary prison camp.
The conditions inside North Korean political prisons are brutal, with many detainees facing starvation, no medical care, lack of shelter and clothes, and sexual assault and torture by guards, according to HRW.
At ordinary prison camps, inmates face “forced labor in dangerous working conditions, repeated mistreatment by guards, and little food or medical care,” HRW said.
An unidentified former senior official at North Korea’s secret police force told HRW that officials under his command “tortured every returnee to find out where they went in China, whom they contacted, and what they had done while outside North Korea.”
Chinese authorities often label North Koreans in China as “illegal economic migrants” and have repatriated them, under a 1986 bilateral border protocol that calls for Chinese police to collaborate with their North Korean counterparts to track down escapees.
Some North Koreans have taken their lives after being arrested, choosing to die rather than face harsh punishment in North Korea.
In July 2017, RFA reported that an unidentified former North Korean official, along with about 10 other North Korean defectors, was caught by Chinese police in southern China’s Yunnan Province. They were taken north to Shenyang, to await a return to North Korea. While being held, the official, his wife, and his three children committed suicide by taking poison.
In December that same year, RFA reported that an unidentified North Korean nuclear scientist was among a group of defectors detained in Shenyang a month earlier and then repatriated. An RFA source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the scientist killed himself by taking poison while confined at a state security cell in the North Korean city of Sinuiju before he could be questioned.