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5 Convicted for Attempting to Smuggle N. Korean Refugees out of China - 2003-05-22

A Chinese court has sentenced five people to up to five years in prison for trying to smuggle North Korean refugees out of China last January.

A court in China's eastern Shandong Province convicted the group of attempting to smuggle 78 North Korean refugees out of the country. The trial took place in the Chinese port city of Yantai, where the accused apparently tried to sneak the refugees aboard fishing boats.

China's Foreign Ministry describes the group as "snakeheads", criminals who traffic in humans for money.

The group includes South Korean photojournalist Seok Jae-hyun, who often worked for the New York Times. His sentence is two years. International journalists' and human rights organizations have protested his arrest, saying he was documenting a story, not smuggling people.

The Reuters news service says one South Korean aid worker got a five-year sentence, while two ethnic Korean-Chinese nationals received three-year terms and a North Korean was jailed for two years.

The 78 refugees the defendants were trying to help are in Chinese custody.

Hundreds-of-thousands of North Koreans have fled their starving, repressive homeland across the border to China. A few have managed to make their way to South Korea by making their way into diplomatic buildings in China and demanding asylum.

But most have been hiding from police among Korean-speaking residents of northeastern China.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has asked China not to send the North Koreans back across the border because they may face severe punishment back home.

But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said the North Koreans are economic migrants looking for jobs, not political refugees who deserve special protection.

She said China is handling these people in accordance with international law, domestic law, and in a humanitarian spirit.

Analysts say China takes a firm stand on the issue for fear of sparking a flood of refugees across the border into northeast China, which is plagued by high unemployment and social unrest.