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S. Korean on Trial in China  for Smuggling N. Korean Refugees - 2002-12-06

A South Korean man and several other people are being tried in northeastern China on charges of smuggling 70 refugees out of North Korea.

A group of at least seven are accused of smuggling refugees from August 2001 to April 2002. Newspapers in China reported that the trial began in the town of Yanji in northeastern China during the middle of the week.

The trial was still under way on Friday and sentencing is likely next week. It is not immediately clear what happened to the more than 70 North Koreans who were smuggled into China. News reports in China said at least one defendant is a South Korean, but the nationalities of the others is not clear.

As many as 300,000 North Koreans have slipped into China in the past few years, fleeing repression and hunger at home. They are often aided by religious groups operating illegally. Many hope to make their way to South Korea.

Beijing considers the North Koreans illegal economic migrants, not refugees. Most North Koreans found in China are sent home.

Despite strong border controls, the number of refugees reaching South Korea has been increasing. At least two hundred North Koreas have made the journey with the assistance of foreign embassies this year alone.

Many more are said to use illegal means, such as obtaining false identification to travel to South Korea.

The announcement of the trial in the Chinese press is unusual. China, which is one of North Korea's few allies, usually remains tight lipped on all matters pertaining to refugees.

However, few details of the case were available. The names of the defendants could not be confirmed.