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(New York) - The North Korean authorities should immediately and fully cooperate with U.N. human rights experts to improve the country’s abysmal human rights conditions, Human Rights Watch said today. On Thursday, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights meeting in Geneva adopted a third consecutive resolution condemning North Korea’s poor human rights record.

A draft resolution posted on the Commission’s website called for North Korea to end its “systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.” It extended the mandate of the special rapporteur on North Korea by another year, and called for the U.N. General Assembly to take up the issue if Pyongyang does not cooperate.

“We welcome the resolution as a sign that the Commission is serious about helping improve North Korea’s appalling human rights record,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “It is high time for North Korea to open its doors, not just to foreign investors, but also to human rights investigators.”

Despite two consecutive resolutions by the Commission against its human rights record in 2003 and 2004, North Korea has largely shunned dialogue with U.N. experts on human rights, including Vitit Muntarbhorn, who was appointed special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea last year.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s DongA newspaper reported Tuesday that Beijing has apparently sent back 30 North Koreans after North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, Kang Sok Ju, visited Beijing on April 2-5.

“Given the appalling treatment these North Koreans would face upon return to North Korea, Beijing has an international legal obligation to protect them, regardless of what originally motivated them to come to China,” said Adams.

DongA reported, citing an unnamed local source, that since Kang’s visit to China, the Chinese authorities have removed a third of 90 imprisoned North Korean migrants who were detained at the Dabei prison in Changchun, Jilin province. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the imprisoned North Koreans were removed from Dabei prison in preparation to forcibly return them to the North Korean authorities.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled to China, leaving home for reasons both of political repression and widespread hunger. Regardless of their reasons for leaving, they face harsh treatment upon return, ranging from detention to torture, long prison terms and even executions. The North Korean government considers leaving North Korea without state permission as a criminal offense and often as an act of treason, which may be punishable by death.

China is obliged under international law not to return persons to a territory where their life or freedom is threatened. This obligation, known as the principle of “non-refoulement,” is articulated in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, both of which China has been a party to since 1982. The right of non-refoulement is recognized as a rule of customary international law, binding on all states regardless of whether they have signed that treaty.

China, however, has been arresting and periodically sending back North Koreans, categorically labeling them as “illegal economic migrants” and disregarding the persecution they will face as a result of their illegal exit.

Human Rights Watch urged China to grant the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees immediate access to the China-North Korea border region with a view to registering and interviewing North Korean seeking asylum, and let U.N. and private humanitarian agencies into the border region to provide humanitarian relief, such as food and medicine.

The exodus of North Koreans to China spiked in the late 1990s as a result of a famine, but continues today due to extreme poverty and repression.

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