North Korean prison camp awaits refugees caught in China

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BEATINGS, executions, hard labour and interrogation.

That’s just a taste of what could be in store for a group of North Koreans who dared to escape the regime and were caught in China.

The group, who are expected to be sent back at any moment, are among 38 North Koreans being held in Chinese territory.
Human rights groups are becoming increasingly concerned for five members in particular who they fear will end up “disappearing” in the DRPK’s notorious prison camp system.

The five are believed to be in Tumen city, across the border from the North Korean city of Namyang, raising concerns they could be moved at any time.

According to Human Rights Watch, North Koreans who escape into China are forcibly returned and face torture and harsh interrogation about their activities outside the secretive state.

Otto Warmbier pictured during his trial in Pyongyang last year. Picture: Jon Chol Jin/AP

Otto Warmbier pictured during his trial in Pyongyang last year. Picture: Jon Chol Jin/APSource:AP

HRW appealed for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to raise the situation of the North Koreans during his meetings with US President Donald Trump this week.

The appeal comes days after US student Otto Warmbier returned home in a coma after 15 months in custody in North Korea.

The 22-year-old University of Virginia student was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in North Korea in March 2016 after allegedly stealing a political banner from a Pyongyang hotel.

Mr Warmbier suffered severe brain damage, which doctors said was likely due to cardiopulmonary arrest suffered while in North Korean detention.

Medical tests didn’t show what caused his injuries but doctors found no evidence of the botulism infection that North Korea claimed caused his coma.

He died days after his return to America.

North Korean Kim Jong-un is the face of the North Korean regime. Picture: Ed Jones/AFP

North Korean Kim Jong-un is the face of the North Korean regime. Picture: Ed Jones/AFPSource:AFP

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Mr Moon should remind Mr Trump that it is not just Americans who suffer at the hands of the authorities in Pyongyang.

FEARS FOR FIVE

It is understood Chinese authorities are currently detaining the five near Yanji city, in Jilin province.

There were plans to move them to Helong city but that reportedly changed and the group was scheduled to be moved to Tumen city, across the border from the North Korean city of Namyang.

“This is perilously close to North Korea and we’re worried that they are now being processed for deportation to North Korea, meaning that they could be forced across the border and into the hands of waiting bowibu officials, for example DPRK State Security,” Mr Robertson said.

HRW spoke to a family member of the group known as Lim who confirmed the information.

Her own father was “forcibly disappeared” in 2010 and she fears his status will affect her remaining family members and they will be lost in the kwanliso system.

A South Korean soldier, left, undergoes an experience on what it is like to be held in a North Korean cell at an exhibition in Seoul. Picture: Lee Jin-man/AP

A South Korean soldier, left, undergoes an experience on what it is like to be held in a North Korean cell at an exhibition in Seoul. Picture: Lee Jin-man/APSource:AP

THE BOWBIU

Reliable estimates of the total number of North Koreans in custody in China, or the number returned remains difficult to obtain.

However based on interviews with activists and families, HRW estimates 51 have been detained in China since July last year including a baby and four children.

It is believed 13 have already been returned to North Korea, leaving 38 in detention. Eight of this group were detained as recently as March and two of these are women who escaped after being sold to Chinese men.

One thing is fore certain – they face being punished upon their return.

“Human Rights Watch has interviewed former bowibu officials as well as persons forced back to North Korea from China, and one thing they agree on is that every North Korean sent back from China is tortured in the course of interrogation to learn who they met with and what they did while they were in China,” Mr Robertson said.

A DPRK soldier looks out from behind a barbed-wire fence around a camp on the North Korean river banks across from Hekou, northeastern China’s Liaoning province. Picture: Ng Han Guan/AP

A DPRK soldier looks out from behind a barbed-wire fence around a camp on the North Korean river banks across from Hekou, northeastern China’s Liaoning province. Picture: Ng Han Guan/APSource:News Limited

HORRENDOUS CONDITIONS

China regards North Koreans in the country as illegal “economic migrants” and sends them back.

Once in the hands of North Korean officials, their nightmare only gets worse.

HRW said those sent back face abuse by prison guards and hard forced labour under harsh and dangerous conditions.

Leaving North Korea without official permission is considered a crime in the DPRK and punishment is handed out by North Korean state security agents, (Bowibu).

North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security also enforces a decree that makes defection from North Korea a crime of “treachery against the nation” that is enforced with severe punishment.

LIFE IN PRISON CAMP

HRW said returnees would almost certainly be sent to a prison facility, however where they are sent depends on what information security officials gained during the torture process.

“If it is determined that they had anything to do with South Korea, the United States or organised religion, like Christianity, they will likely be sent to the worst alternative, the political prisoner camp (kwanliso), which is reserved for persons that the DPRK government views as enemies who cannot be reformed,” Mr Robertson said.

A DPRK soldier watches from a tower on the Yalu river north of the border city of Dandong, Liaoning province, northern China near Sinuiju, North Korea. Picture: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A DPRK soldier watches from a tower on the Yalu river north of the border city of Dandong, Liaoning province, northern China near Sinuiju, North Korea. Picture: Kevin Frayer/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

He said the conditions inside such camps were shocking.

“The abuses by guards are most severe, the food and other rations the least survivable, and the forced labour the most dangerous; leading many to believe that inmates sent there are being worked to death deliberately,” he said.

Guards regularly beat, torture and sexually abuse inmates while keeping prisoners hungry through a lack of adequate food.

“Even minor infractions of camp rules, or perceived disrespect to a guard can be life threatening since the guards know that they can abuse as much as they like with impunity,” Mr Robertson said.

debra.killalea@news.com.au

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