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Report: Influx of N. Korean Refugees at China Detention Center - 2004-03-25

South Korea is trying to confirm reports that about 100 North Korean refugees at a detention center in China are on hunger strike to protest plans to repatriate them. The South Korean authorities say they are willing to accept North Korean refugees who want to go to the South.

South Korean authorities say they are willing to work with China to ensure that North Korean detainees can be transferred to South Korea. South Korean media report the hunger strike has been going on for about three weeks, and involves about 100 North Korean refugees being held in northeastern China.

Tom Peters is the founder and director of Helping Hands, an activist group in Seoul that helps North Korean refugees. He says his informal network of sources has confirmed the hunger strike is taking place - and that it began with five refugees terrified of being repatriated. "They were so distressed and so fearfu, that they began ingesting pins and needles, in fact, to perforate their own stomach and even induce their own suicide," says Mr. Peters.

Mr. Peters says the five began a hunger strike when they were transferred to a detention camp near the North Korean border. "It spread very quickly to the other refugees. That is the extent of the information that I know at this time," he says. "But I do believe that it is well over a hundred refugees who are being detained and are participating."

Officially, Beijing views North Korean refugees as economic migrants rather than asylum seekers, and has agreed with Pyongyang to send them back across the border. China sends home an estimated 100-to-200 refugees a week.

Human rights groups estimate tens-of-thousands of North Koreans are hiding in China, having fled extreme poverty or repression at home.

Mr. Peters says those who are sent back can expect face punishment. "By far, the most severe punishment, including summary execution, is meted out to those who can be identified as having been with Christians in China," he says.

Other punishments are reported to include torture and forced labor at so-called re-education camps.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing on Thursday wrapped up high-level meetings in Pyongyang on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. That issue is at the heart of a major international dispute, with the United States leading efforts to end Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

For China, the nuclear and the refugee issues are closely linked. Beijing has organized two rounds of multinational talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programs. Beijing is eager to head off any international actions that would create instability in its impoverished neighbor, possibly unleashing a flood of refugees over the border.