China is facing growing calls to stop the repatriation of dozens of North Koreans who recently fled into China and are being held by authorities. China says it has the right to send them back, calling them "economic migrants." But human rights activists say the detainees could face torture and execution, if they are returned to North Korea.
U.S. lawmakers held a hearing on Monday to highlight the urgency of the situation.
Representative Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey and head of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said that in recent weeks Chinese authorities have detained dozens of North Koreans who have fled to China.
Smith said they will face dire consequences, if they return to North Korea.
"North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, has threatened to quote 'exterminate three generations' of any family with a member caught defecting from North Korea during the 100 day mourning period of the late Kim Jong Il. And frankly, I believe him," said Smith.
Instead of sending them back to North Korea, as China has been done for years, U.S. lawmakers, human rights activists and two North Korean defectors are urging Beijing to take a different course.
In her testimony before the commission, North Korean defector Songhwa Han said the reason she fled North Korea many years ago for the first time was so she could feed her children. Han said she crossed the waist-high waters of the Tumen River into China, carrying her malnourished seven-year-old daughter in a sack and holding her elder daughter's hand as they braved the icy currents.
Han said she was forcibly repatriated to North Korea four times, before finally escaping overseas.
Han said repatriated North Koreans had to become animals to survive. She said that after defectors were handed over to North Korean authorities, they were told they were dogs and that they were allowed only to look down at the ground. Prisoners were chained to one another and were beaten with the butt of a gun, if they made any noise.
Her daughter, Jinhye Jo, also testified at the hearing.
Jo said it was hunger that led her family to flee North Korea, and that they had to contend with Chinese authorities searching for North Korean defectors and human traffickers.
Jo said that when she thinks of what she endured while being held in North Korea, she fears it would be far worse for the dozens of North Koreans now being held in China once they are repatriated.
According to the State Department's 2010 human rights report, it is estimated that thousands of North Koreans are hiding in China. Reports and testimonies of those who have been forcibly repatriated tell of beatings, torture, forced labor and sexual violence against those who are caught.
Suzanne Scholte, a human rights activist working on behalf of North Korean defectors, says China is prolonging the refugee crisis.
"China fears an increasing flow of refugees, if it allows refugees safe passage to South Korea. But China's actions are ensuring that there will always be refugees by relieving Kim Jong Un of taking any measures that would improve conditions in North Korea," said Scholte. "North Koreans are fleeing North Korea out of desperation. They know the considerable risks they are taking, and most North Koreans desire to return to North Korea once conditions improve."
In recent weeks, calls for China to stop its repatriation of North Korean defectors have increased, and South Korea has played a key role in drawing international attention to the issue.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has urged China to refrain from repatriating North Korean defectors if they are not involved in criminal activity. Seoul has also raised the issue with a United Nations panel on human rights and in meetings with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in South Korea last week.