North Korea has been condemned as one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. Yet China denies its obligations under the 1951 refugee convention, calling the fugitives “illegal immigrants”. It refuses to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees any access to these border areas. But it is possible to get at the truth by following the escapers to freedom.
The South Korean airliner could make the journey from Yanji to Seoul in 60 minutes but instead it flies a great loop around North Korean airspace to land after three hours in the air.
No refugee could hope to pass the Soviet-style security checks to get on the flight; on the divided Korean peninsula it seems that history has stood still since the end of the war here in 1953. Even in Seoul, I was to find, the survivors of Kim Jong-il’s utopia cannot escape his clammy grasp.
Take the 70-year-old grandmother who sat opposite me in a cellar cafe near the British embassy. She asked to be called Park Kyong-ja. She had eight children and some of her family were still in North Korea. But she had escaped, twice.
“We were caught the first time and sent back from China,” she said. “I was stripped naked. They made me squat in case I was hiding anything in my body. I was beaten, of course. Then I was kept for a year in a prison in the Naman district of Chongjin city, North Hamgyong province.
[Excerpt of an article by Michael Sheridan, Sunday Times]