One-time defectors say repatriation could be fatal
As pressure rises over the repatriation of North Korean defectors in China, others who have previously crossed the border into the South told the Korea JoongAng Daily that the defectors stand a high chance of being killed if they are sent back.
“If they are sent to the North, they would all be executed,” said Lee Myeong-suk, a 44-year-old female defector. “Their purpose of defection, going to the South, was publicly known, which means they would die if they go to the North. For North Korean authorities, arresting so many defectors in one group is an achievement as well.”
Lee defected to China in 2003. She was arrested in 2005 by Chinese authorities and sent to the notorious Kaechon concentration camp, where many political criminals and defectors were imprisoned and tortured.
“According to North Korean law, the minimum punishment against defectors trying to flee to the South is to be sentenced to 10 years in prison,” Lee said. “I bet they will kill even the eight-month-old baby among the detained defectors.”
A 40-year-old male defector surnamed Choi in Seoul, who is working at a private institute advocating for human rights in the North, also got caught by Chinese border guards fleeing from the North in 2001. He said that he was forcibly sent to a labor camp in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, after being caught by Chinese police at a border city between China and Mongolia.
He accepted the interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on the condition of anonymity because he feared his family members still in the North would be punished for his remarks.
“The labor camp .?.?. I can say it is a place as terrible as a political prison camp,” he said. “The life in the camp is worse than that of a dog. They gave me more pain than I thought I could bear as a human being.”
“In very cold weather, I wore only a thin cloth, and worked from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m.,” he said. “The security guards hit me every time I took a wrong step. I thought dying might be better than living there.”
According to Choi, Chinese policemen checked his identification card first, and he was found to be a North Korean. So they sent him to the North’s intelligence agency for questioning. He said he crossed the border for business purposes, and he was sent to the labor camp. However, those who were found trying to go to the South were sent to the concentration camps.
“If defectors are found to have political purposes - defecting into South Korea, following South Korean ideology or having contact with Christian people, they are sent to the political prison,” he said. “But if they have economic purposes, such as trading in China, like me, they would be sent to forced labor camps.”
Choi said that repatriation of North Korean defectors has often occurred previously, but the problem is that these 24 defectors have been made public for the first time since Kim Jong-un took over. The new North Korean leader publicly said he would “eradicate three generations of a defector’s family.”
“What I worry about is that this happened after Kim Jong-il’s death,” he said. “I assume North Korea will punish them more harshly than any other previous defectors.”
Jung Gwang-il, a defector working at the Free the NK Gulag in Seoul, was once imprisoned in the Yodok concentration camp, one of the most notorious political prisons in the North, on charges of internal spying. He said he was there with many defectors dragged from China.
“When I was imprisoned in the Yodok camp for three years from April 2004, I saw a bunch of defectors arrested by Chinese policemen and sent back to the North, about 40 people per week,” Jung said.
“Lots of people were dying in the camp,” he said. “Most defectors trying to go to the South were classified as political criminals, as traitors against the nation. They were punished more brutally than other prisoners.”
Defectors were also pessimistic that the international community’s request for releasing the 24 people will work, given previous cases.
“When I was at the camp, I was imprisoned with a defector whose name was Kim Eun-cheol, who was arrested by Russian police with six other people at a border city in Russia,” Jung said.
“However, before they were arrested, international demand was high, urging Russia not to repatriate them,” Jung said. “They were even granted the status of refugee from the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees.”
However, Russia refused the international community’s request, and they were sent back to North Korea.
“They were all sent to the Yodok camp, and six of them died, except Kim,” he said. “Kim was the only person who survived in the camp, and he was released three years later with me.”
“The 24 defectors have already made the situation too large, and I think there’s almost no possibility that they will survive if they are sent to the North,” Jung said. “The more you make the defectors an international issue, the more sins they will be charged for in the North.”
Choi, the 40-year-old defector, also said, “In early 2000, there were lots of defectors trying to break into the South Korean Consulate in China to ask for help, drawing public attention to the issue. However, nothing has changed since then. They are still forcibly returned to the North.”
Kim Yeong-hwa, a North Korean defector to the South and the president of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea, said that the current situation could be even more serious than when Kim Jong-il was alive.
“Kim Jong-un publicly said that he would eradicate three generations of the defectors’ families,” Kim said. “To consolidate his power and prevent further defections, Kim Jong-un will start his reign of terror by killing defectors.”
However, there were different opinions on ways to save the defectors.
“If I were the defectors, I would wish the media wouldn’t publicize this matter,” Choi said. “North Korea will strengthen its border security more and focus on cracking down on hidden defectors in China from now on, after this case.”
“I guess the best thing is trying to solve the matter by a back-door route between China and North Korea,” he said.
Do Hee-yun, president of the Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees, also said, “The ideal way to solve this matter is to recognize them as refugees officially. However, making behind-the-scenes contacts with China would be the most realistic way.”
“If we solve this matter diplomatically, it would be a big achievement for us,” Do added.
Kim Yong-hwa, from the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea, said that President Lee Myung-bak should do something.
“We did everything we could, and the last thing we hope is that President Lee Myung-bak officially asks for the release of the defectors to Chinese President Hu Jintao,” Kim said. “Families of the defectors are losing hope, saying that they would kill the defectors themselves rather than let them be sent back to the North.”
Jung, the defector from Free the NK Gulag, said that the South Korean people should take the matter very seriously and treat it like it is a problem of their own citizens.
“China is not a country that guarantees human rights of refugees,” Jung said.
By Kim Hee-jin [firstname.lastname@example.org]