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China Arrests Korean Refugees, says Activist - 2002-09-02

A German activist who has been helping North Korean refugees says Chinese police have arrested a dozen people who had hoped to flee the country.

German refugee activist Norbert Vollertsen says Chinese police arrested a South Korean aid worker and 11 North Korean refugees at the Changchun rail station in northeast China Saturday.

In an email to VOA, Doctor Vollertsen says the aid worker is Kim Hee-tae, a longtime advocate for North Korean refugees. This particular group of refugees includes men, women and a 15-year-old boy.

South Korean officials in Beijing have not been able to confirm the information. Police in Changchun have declined to comment on the incident.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have illegally crossed the border into China, fleeing starvation and repression at home. More than 80 of them have managed to get to South Korea this year by sneaking into diplomatic buildings in China and requesting political asylum.

This just-arrested group may have been planning such an escape. Dr. Vollertsen is urging Beijing not to send the refugees back to North Korea where he says they would be in grave jeopardy.

China has a treaty obligation to return arrested refugees to North Korea, where human rights groups and U.S. lawmakers say some face imprisonment, torture, or execution.

Beijing says the tens of thousands of North Koreans who are hiding in China are economic migrants seeking better jobs, not political refugees entitled to special protection.

But China, wary of damaging its international image, has allowed refugees who come to public attention to travel to South Korea via a third country.