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UN Envoy Says N. Korea Cracking Down on Escapees

A specially appointed United Nations investigator of North Korea's human rights situation says Pyongyang appears to be cracking down on people who try to leave the country. He gives South Korea good marks for its care of traumatized North Koreans who do manage to escape. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin reports.

United Nations Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntabhorn told reporters in Seoul Friday fewer people seem to be escaping North Korea by way of its border with China.

"Exits are more difficult, because of stringent border conditions," he said. "Those who are found to be leaving or returnees are punished more severely, according to our sources."

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have streamed over the Chinese border since the 1990s to escape severe deprivation and repression at home. Vitit, a legal scholar of Thai origin, has reported to the United Nations for four years on the North's abuses, including widespread torture, public executions, and involuntary abortions.

North Korea has never allowed Vitit to visit the country, nor cooperated with his investigation in any way. He compiles his research from a comprehensive range of second-hand sources, including interviews with North Korean defectors and U.N. agencies operating in the North.

Vitit says the dangerous and stressful process of leaving North Korea creates problems for many defectors - most of whom end up here in South Korea.

"They often land up in very dangerous situations before arriving in the Republic of Korea, and many suffer from stressful experiences before reaching a safe haven. A number are victims of multiple abuses, including torture and other forms of violence," he said. "Their psychological and other scars, such as post traumatic stress disorders, run deep."

During his visit to Seoul this week, Vitit was given a tour of the refugees' first stop in their new South Korean life: an education facility named Hanawon. He says South Korea has equipped the facility well to help traumatized North Koreans heal.

"Hanawon now provides the services of psychologists and psychiatrists to help those in need," he added. "There is more emphasis on vocational training and education to enable those from the North to prepare themselves for employment after leaving Hanawon."

Nearly 15,000 North Korean refugees have resettled in South Korea, with more than 2,000 arriving in the past year alone.

Vitit calls on South Korea to provide food and humanitarian aid to the North, as long as Pyongyang ensures adequate monitoring to ensure the aid reaches the most needy. He accuses North Korea of spending too much of its budgets on its military, and says the North must shift more of its resources to feeding itself.