N. Korean defectors, activists press China for refugee help

NEW YORK — Three North Korean women joined activists at a panel discussion Friday with the goal of pressuring Beijing to help defectors from the reclusive state, rather than sending them back to where they face severe punishment.

“In China, tens of thousands of North Korean women are hiding and living in fear of capture by Chinese authorities,” said Lee So Yeon, a former soldier who fled her country in 2008, and is now a leading activist in South Korea, where she lives.

Many of the women, she said, are sold to men in China with prices ranging from USD4,000 for women in their 20s to USD3,000 for those in their 30s and USD2,000 in their 40s.

“The greatest fear for women who are forced to leave is deportation to North Korea,” she explained.

Those who are caught by Chinese authorities and sent back face the prospects of punishment meted out in prison camps, correctional training centers or labor training camps.

Life is especially harsh for women who have become pregnant by Chinese men with some of them facing execution, she said.

Lim Hye Jin left her country in 1998 during the famine crisis. Once she crossed into China with a broker she was forcibly married to his brother, before becoming pregnant and later being rounded up by Chinese officials while working at a market.

After repatriation she escaped back into China but was brought back to the North once again. Eventually, she made a third escape and arrived in South Korea in 2002 but without her daughter.

“We went to China to survive, but because of the Chinese government’s brutal treatment we lived in fear,” said Grace Jo, who wound up in the United States with her mother and older sister in 2008 after facing repatriation by Chinese authorities following their defection.

She, along with Lim and Lee, was among some 20 people who walked to China’ U.N. mission from the Armenian Church in Manhattan, where they had gathered for the panel discussion connected with the United Nations’ annual two-week Commission on the Status of Women.

The group attempted to deliver a letter addressed to President Xi Jinping, but was unable to do so, as no one answered the door to accept it. Instead they made statements and held signs on the steps of the building.

The Commission is the main intergovernmental body focused on the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Organizers said it was the first time the North Korean women were able to participate, marking progress for them. Their panel discussion was called, “North Korean Refugee Women: Destitution and Human Trafficking in China.”

The letter asked Xi to provide refugees coming into China from North Korea “safe passage to a third country” and asked him to cease returning them to North Korea, as well as to work with the U.N. Human Rights Council to safely resettle them.

“The Chinese government is pretty stubborn, they don’t show us a lot of differences or changes toward North Korean defectors,” Jo told Kyodo News when asked about their position toward the North Koreans.

“That is why we keep trying to push them a little bit in many ways and hopefully the CSW can work more about this issue…in trying to press the Chinese government a little more and that way they can change a little bit.” PNA/Kyodo -northboundasia.com