2004.06.04: June 4, 2004: Headlines: COS - Zimbabwe: COS - China: Speaking Out: Intellectual Conservative: An RPCV writes on the Future of China's Values

Peace Corps Online: Directory: China: Peace Corps China : The Peace Corps in China: 2004.06.04: June 4, 2004: Headlines: COS - Zimbabwe: COS - China: Speaking Out: Intellectual Conservative: An RPCV writes on the Future of China's Values

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An RPCV writes on the Future of China's Values

An RPCV writes on the Future of China's Values

In China, refugees from North Korea live their lives on the run. Having taken a huge risk just crossing the border, they face a perilous existence, in which they are constantly harangued by hunger, isolation and uncertainty. Afraid to venture outdoors for fear of arrest, some spend months in tiny one-room apartments, depending on human rights organizations to bring them food. If caught by police, they are almost always repatriated and, once back in North Korea, face mandatory imprisonment. Sometimes, political prisoners in North Korea are so brutally interrogated that they never even have a chance to begin serving their sentences, dying on the floor of their dark, insect-infested cells.

An RPCV writes on the Future of China's Values

The Future of China's Values

by a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Zimbabwe

4 June 2004

In China, refugees from North Korea face a perilous existence in which they are constantly harangued by hunger, isolation and uncertainty. If caught by police, they are almost always repatriated and, once back in North Korea, face mandatory imprisonment.

In China, refugees from North Korea live their lives on the run. Having taken a huge risk just crossing the border, they face a perilous existence, in which they are constantly harangued by hunger, isolation and uncertainty. Afraid to venture outdoors for fear of arrest, some spend months in tiny one-room apartments, depending on human rights organizations to bring them food. If caught by police, they are almost always repatriated and, once back in North Korea, face mandatory imprisonment. Sometimes, political prisoners in North Korea are so brutally interrogated that they never even have a chance to begin serving their sentences, dying on the floor of their dark, insect-infested cells.

Human rights advocates helping North Korean refugees in China are also targets. If caught, they are subject to lengthy prison terms in squalid conditions. Such was the case with Takayuki Noguchi, who works for Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (LFNKR), a Japan-based NGO, when he went to China last year to help two North Korean refugees find asylum in a third country. On December 10, 2003 he was spotted by police as he tried to check into a hotel with two refugees in Nannin, Quangxi province. After being questioned about his involvement with them, the three were arrested.

While awaiting trial, Noguchi was visited by Masaharu Nakagawa, a member of Japan’s Diet and co-founder of the International Parliamentarians' Coalition for North Korean Refugees and Human Rights (IPCNKR). Although Nakagawa was allowed to take pictures of the prison facilities, he was not allowed access to Noguchi.

“I was shown the room where he was questioned, as well as the room where his parents visited him, but I was not allowed to see him,” said Mr. Nakagawa in a telephone interview. Nakagawa also said that Noguchi had received visits from the Japanese consulate as well as his parents, but access to anyone else was restricted.

On Sunday, May 9, the first phase of Noguchi’s trial was held in semi-secrecy. According to an LFNKR press release “Noguchi was technically given an ‘open trial,’ but Chinese authorities avoided announcing the trial date to the media or to LFNKR, though this information had been repeatedly requested.”

LFNKR believes that this, together with the barring of the news media from the courtroom, constitutes a de-facto closed-door trial.

Noguchi is not the first of LFNKR’s workers to be incarcerated by the Chinese. In a statement to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) on April 19, President Suzanne Scholte, of the Defense Forum Foundation, said the North Korean government offered 440,000 yen (about $4000) and a brand new Mercedes Benz to catch Hiroshi Kato, one of the founders of LFNKR. Kato was caught by Chinese police in November, 2002 but was released in less than a week after the Japanese government intervened on his behalf.

Organizations like LFNKR are dealing with a refugee population estimated to range from 60,000 to 300,000. Refugees International (RI), an NGO, reported in a recent statement that it is inclined to believe the more conservative estimate of 60,000 to 100,000.

In the same statement, RI reported the findings of interviews it conducted with 38 North Koreans in Jilin Province, China, during June 2003. All 38 said they had fled their country either to find a better life in China or to bring back food and other basic supplies to their families. Prior to crossing the border for the first time, none of them had been persecuted for their religious or political beliefs. It is on the basis of findings like this that the Chinese government argues that North Koreans are economic migrants rather than refugees, and are thus not entitled to refugee status.

Critics say this reasoning is problematic in that North Korean defectors are subject to persecution after they are repatriated. Once they cross the border into China, they are in breach of North Korea’s criminal code #47, which stipulates that anyone traveling abroad is to be considered a traitor and must serve time in special “labor training centers,” tantamount to prisons. The minimum sentence is two months for a first time offence and can be as high as seven years for repeat offenders.

Refugees International says another flaw in China’s argument is that everyone in North Korea is divided into political classes. Those with suspect revolutionary credentials, who make up most of the population, end up in the lower classes. They receive lower rations and less access to full employment. RI believes the deprivation that North Koreans are fleeing is a direct result of the North Korean political class system.

Besides imprisonment, there have been even more ominous accounts of government atrocities against political prisoners steadily filtering out of North Korea in recent years. These stories, told by individuals from various geographic areas and backgrounds, remain consistent. In one of many instances, North Korean agents beat to death Sohn In Kuk, a 40-year-old refugee who had fled North Korea after his entire family had starved to death. His crime was "crossing the border" too many times.

Susan Schlotte says the children of defectors are also killed: “We know pregnant women who are repatriated are forced to undergo abortions. If the babies are born alive, they are suffocated, murdered on the spot. The crime that the baby committed is two-fold: he may have been the child of a Chinese man and he shares his mother's guilt for the crime she committed of leaving the country.”

If defectors have converted to Christianity and return to North Korea with the intent of propagating their newfound religion, execution is even more likely. “… (This) is another crime against the state in North Korea, because Kim Jong-il considers Christianity to be the biggest threat to his God-head,” says Schlotte.

In an interview with LFNKR, Park Choong-il, who defected to Russia in 1999, described the seven-month interrogation he underwent after being repatriated by Chinese and Russian authorities

When an interrogator was not satisfied with the prisoner's answers, he sent the prisoner to a torture chamber… (which) was filled with all kinds of torture implements, such as leather belts, rubber belts, iron chains, and large wooden sticks… I witnessed the torture of other victims under spotlights. This place was filled with the painful screams of victims, the sounds of torturers' shouts and the pounding of prisoners being beaten.

Of life in his cell, Park says:

Apparently, I ground my teeth in my sleep. The guard on duty awakened my cellmates and me and ordered them to beat me for grinding my teeth. They had to obey the guard and proceeded to beat and kick me vigorously for fear of punishment if their blows were not severe enough. Then, for further punishment, the guard ordered me to clean the toilet bowl… with my tongue. I had to continue licking the toilet bowl for 30 minutes, and he did not allow me to spit anything out and forced me to swallow. I literally swallowed human feces. I received this type of punishment three times during my…detention there.

Despite these and other horror stories, China continues to repatriate North Korean refugees. Sometimes, violent methods are implemented, such as the incident on April 2 when, according to Durihana Missionary Foundation, a Chinese border guard on horseback shot a 20-year-old North Korean defector. He was with a group of at least 17 who were trying to cross the border into Mongolia.

China also rewards its citizens for turning in North Korean refugees. RI says its contacts along the border report that, in periodic police sweeps usually ordered from Beijing, local police are offered cash incentives for the arrest of a certain number of North Koreans. In turn, the police offer rewards to individual citizens for turning people in. The reward is 100 yuan, or about $12.

Ironically, China is on the Executive Committee of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But not only does it refuse to grant refugee status to North Korean asylum seekers, it also prevents the Beijing-based staff of UNHCR from setting up assessment facilities in the autonomous ethnic Korean province of Yangbianin, in which a large number of North Korean refugees reside.

Chinese authorities have also tried to prevent North Koreans from reaching the embassies and consulates of potential resettlement countries. In May 2002, a small group of North Korean asylum seekers tried to enter a Japanese consulate in Northeast China but were stopped by Chinese guards. Two of the group were able to slip into the visa application area, but the guards entered and forcibly removed them, ignoring protests from Japanese consular officials. Such actions are a serious violation of diplomatic protocol, as embassy and consular grounds in most nations are considered off limits to local authorities.

In China’s view, easing up on illegals from North Korea could, in the worst case scenario, spark a massive influx of starving refugees that could not possibly be sustained. Contrary to overblown media reports of China’s supposedly unlimited investment potential, most of the country’s 1.4 billion people are still mired in poverty. GDP per person only reached $1000 in 2003, which means that China is not yet even a middle-income country by the standards of the World Bank, and even falls behind Namibia and Guatamala. Understandably, China is alarmed at the amount of illegals passing through its borders.

There are, however, several aid organizations ready to step in and assist China to build and maintain refugee camps. And two organizations that have left North Korea in protest of the government's diversion of their humanitarian aid, Action Against Hunger and Doctors Without Borders, say they are willing to assist North Koreans wherever they are.

The fate of the two North Koreans Noguchi was trying to help remains unknown. A recent LFNKR press release reported that an official in Beijing neither denied nor confirmed whether they were still in China. Others believe they have already been repatriated.

As for Noguchi and others like him, the arrests will continue as long as China’s policy remains the same. Japan’s government is reluctant to help. Foreign minister Junko Kawaguchi recently said Japan would not intervene on Noguchi’s behalf. He broke Chinese law, she says, and Japan must “ask for China’s forgiveness.” In a telephone interview, Hiroshi Kato of LFNKR explained that Japan does not want to worsen its sometime less-than-congenial relations with China.

Some believe the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing could be a turning point in China’s repatriation policy. The world will be watching China, and some will undoubtedly see the games as an opportunity to draw international attention to the issue. The Olympics are more than just an economic opportunity. They are a showcase of a nation as a whole. In hosting the Olympics, a nation makes a statement to the rest of the world: this is our culture, history and society and this is what we stand for. As China continues to develop, it will have to start asking itself Who Are We? In 2008, China’s leadership will have to choose which image it wants to present to the world.

When this story was posted in August 2006, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Intellectual Conservative

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