March 18, 2007

SEOUL--North Korea is again dominating headlines by signing a deal to close its main nuclear reactor and allow international inspectors to return in exchange for energy and economic assistance. As North Korea watchers cautiously welcome this possible step toward a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, a deeply disturbing development has garnered almost no attention: Pyongyang's hardening policy toward North Korean border-crossers.

In an ominous reversal, North Korea has apparently scrapped its 2000 decree that it would be lenient toward citizens who "illegally" crossed the border -- in effect, almost everyone leaving the country -- to China to find food or earn money to feed their families. According to recent border-crossers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Pyongyang has implemented harsher punishments for those repatriated.

The North Koreans interviewed recounted the chilling language officials use to describe the policies the North reinstated perhaps as long ago as late 2004: Those crossing the border without state permission "won't be forgiven," no matter why they went to China or what they did there, including first-time "offenders."

The hardening policy shows how Pyongyang is violating the obligations it undertook when it signed major human rights conventions in the 1990s.

North Korea is denying its citizens their fundamental rights by preventing them from freely leaving the country; arresting those who make such an attempt; and arbitrarily detaining, mistreating, torturing and sometimes even executing border-crossers who are repatriated. China, too, regularly flouts its obligations under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention by labeling all North Koreans "illegal economic migrants" and sending them back.

Many of these North Koreans crossed the border because the state failed them. North Korea claims to have a socialist system under which all citizens receive free food, education, medical care and housing. But the reality is that only the country's elite enjoy such privileges. The rest of the population is left to fend for itself. Undertaking the dangerous and difficult journey to China is a form of self-defense. The North Korean government fails to feed its people but then persecutes them for trying to survive.

A 59-year-old North Korean woman told us about her deportation from China and punishment in North Korea. Her crime? She had left without state permission, which is considered an act of treason. "I went to China because I had no food at home. But I had to live in hiding there, so I tried to go to South Korea," she said. "I was caught. The Chinese police took all the money I saved. They beat and kicked me. When I was sent back to North Korea, things got even worse. They made me strip, and a doctor searched my vagina to see if I hid any money they could confiscate. They treated me like an animal, because they considered me a traitor." After serving a prison sentence, she escaped to China again in September.

A 42-year-old woman from Haeju said she was deported from China in December 2003 and served 18 months in a North Korean labor camp. "Every day, I saw someone dying. We were given a fistful of powdered corn stalk, three times a day, and people had trouble digesting it. Many people died after having diarrhea for a week," she said. "They left patients in the hallway outside toilets. So many people died, they wrapped bodies in plastic sheets and buried them in a mountain."

North Korean authorities often subject people who have been detained to cruel and inhuman treatment, including punitive strip searches, verbal abuse, threats and beatings. A 50-year-old woman who had a scar on her left cheek shared her story with Human Rights Watch: "They arrested me for selling clothes, which was banned. I served nine months in prison for that. They gave prisoners a fistful of powdered corn stalk for each meal. My health deteriorated so much that I was once unconscious for 20 days. A doctor revived me. I stole a spoon with which to kill myself, but they caught me. A guard kicked me in the face." After she was released from prison, she fled the country.

The world should pay attention not only to North Korea's responsibilities under the new nuclear disarmament agreement but also to Pyongyang's responsibilities to its own people. North Koreans are forced to flee their country when the state has failed them. The rest of the world should not fail them as well.

Kay Seok is North Korea researcher for Human Rights Watch.

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