Rights group urges China to release North Korean refugees
Whereabouts of eight North Koreans stopped in Shenyang unknown, Human Rights Watch says
China should immediately reveal the whereabouts of eight North Koreans it detained last month, Human Rights Watch said on Monday, adding they risk severe torture if they were returned to the North.
Most North Korean refugees begin their escape by crossing into China and then try to make it to third countries – often in Southeast Asia – where they seek asylum in the South. If caught and returned to the North they can face severe punishment.
China regularly labels North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” and repatriates them based on a border protocol adopted in 1986.
“By now, there are plenty of survivor accounts that reveal [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un’s administration is routinely persecuting those who are forced back to North Korea,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
The eight North Koreans – including at least four women – were detained by Chinese officials in mid-March after they were stopped for a random check in Shenyang, Liaoning province.
Human Rights Watch said that based on information from sources it considers usually reliable, the group was still believed to be jailed in China.
But it feared they may soon be returned to the North since “most repatriations happen two months after detention”.
“There is no way to sugar coat this: if this group is forced back to North Korea, their lives and safety will be at risk,” Robertson said.
Seoul’s foreign ministry did not confirm the Human Rights Watch account, saying its protocol was not to publicly comment on individual refugee cases for their own safety and to protect diplomatic relations.
“But we closely coordinate with a nation involved when a problem involving North Korean refugees arises,” it said in a statement, and was in general “doing our best to ensure the safety and safe transfer of those who wish to come to the South”.
More than 40 North Koreans, including children and pregnant women, had been held by China over the past nine months, Human Rights Watch said, and at least nine forcibly returned to the North.
Since the end of the Korean war in 1953, more than 30,000 North Koreans have escaped – most after a deadly famine in the mid-90s – and settled in the South.