A South Korean court has granted refugee status to a woman who fled China after helping escapees from North Korea there, saying she could face severe punishment from Beijing if sent back. The Seoul Administrative Court ruled in favour of the woman, an ethnic Korean identified only as Lee, a court spokesman said yesterday. It reversed the justice ministry's decision to deny her refugee status. Lee, who lived near the border, said she had helped some 20 refugees flee North Korea until police raided her house in March last year. Her husband was arrested but Lee escaped with her daughter. She arrived in South Korea via the Yellow Sea along with other refugees aboard a fishing boat. The justice ministry refused to grant Lee refugee status, saying her claim lacked credibility. South Korean courts rarely grant such status to ethnic Koreans with Chinese nationality. Lee is only the second. But the administrative court ruled last week that she could face harsh punishment if returned to China. "In this case, her past activities to help refugees in China were recognised by the court," the spokesman said. China repatriates North Korean refugees it catches, also punishing those who help refugees. On March 29, China arrested Kim Young-Hwan and three other South Korean activists who had been trying to help fugitives from the North. They were held for almost four months before being deported.