Original article appeared here.

The plight of NK refugees in China
September 15, 2009
Justice for North Korea members conduct a street performance Saturday afternoon in Insa-dong, central Seoul, that depicts how North Korean defectors to China are treated. Provided by Justice for North Korea

North Koreans who escape their impoverished homeland by sneaking into neighboring China are in for a rude awakening once they cross the border.

The Chinese government does not recognize them as refugees. Rather, they are seen as economic migrants, and they are systematically sent back home – where they face the possibility of being shipped to one of North Korea’s notorious labor camps, tortured or even executed.

Justice for North Korea, an organization made up of both South Koreans and expats that was established in May 2007, hopes to raise awareness about those who risk their lives to escape the closed country.

One of the group’s regular activities involves a gripping performance held from 3 to 5 p.m. every Saturday on the main drag of Insa-dong, central Seoul, where a half-dozen members depict how severely defectors are treated by North Korean and Chinese soldiers.

“We basically have a small performance where one person dresses as a refugee and is tied with ropes and has a black cloth over her face and is kneeling down on the street,” said Lauren E. Walker, an English teacher who has been in Korea for just six months. “Another person dresses as a North Korean prison guard and someone dresses as a Chinese guard. This is to illustrate what these refugees face once they get to China. They can’t go back to North Korea because they will be sent to prison camps, but Chinese guards repatriate them anyway.”

During the performance, group members display informational posters, distribute flyers to passersby and attempt to engage people about the issue. The group currently has 10 active members, and more than 170 people have joined its Facebook page.

“Expats who are involved often get asked, ‘You’re not Korean, why are you doing this?’” Walker said. “That’s a really great opportunity for us to say, ‘We live here in Korea and we feel that North Koreans are part of our families, too.’ We get the information to people and encourage dialogue with South Koreans and all other tourists and expats in the Insa-dong area.”

Dan Bielefeld, a member who came to Korea in 2006, said that a Korean boy approached him one time and asked in Korean, “Is this real?”

“I explained to him in my halting Korean what was going on, and he seemed interested,” Bielefeld said. “Many South Koreans are aware of the dire situation in North Korea, but I guess they don’t know the details. People I talked to were surprised, saying they didn’t know it was that serious.”

The group branches out into other areas as well. As part of its efforts to bolster awareness of North Korean defectors, it recently hosted a screening of the 2005 documentary film “Seoul Train” in an art gallery near Hongdae.

The film tells the story of a family that attempted to escape North Korea by going to the Japanese consulate in China. As they passed through the front gates, some of the family members were forcibly dragged out by the Chinese police.

The family eventually won asylum and arrived in Korea, helped by the vast media coverage that characterized the incident as inhumane. More than 40 people of various nationalities came to see the film, which was followed by a panel discussion with three people who have risked their lives to help North Koreans escape.

Tim Peters, an American Christian activist who runs the Seoul-based charity Helping Hands Korea, was one of them.

“Even though this film was made five years ago, the situation as it exists in China as far as North Korean refugees are concerned is almost completely unchanged,” Peters said during the discussion.

Pastor Peter Chung, the Korean founder of the group, said the majority of Justice for North Korea’s members are foreign nationals. Their involvement in this issue, he said, helps get the attention of locals.

“Their work reminds South Koreans that, hey, even foreigners are campaigning for North Korean human rights,” Chung said. “They think, ‘I’m a South Korean and I share the same blood with North Koreans and I should get more involved.’”

Chung, who studied abroad in China in 1998, witnessed heartbreaking scenes of poor North Korean defectors wandering around helplessly in China. He quit his studies and set up a shelter to help North Korean defectors. He was captured by Chinese guards and served jail term for his work.

For those who are interested in checking out the group’s activities or participating, search Facebook using the term “Rescue NK.”

By Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]