In an ominous hardening of policy, North Korea appears to be punishing its citizens with longer sentences in abusive prisons if they are caught crossing the border to China or have been forcibly repatriated by Beijing, Human Rights Watch said in a new briefing paper.
According to recent escapees from North Korea interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Pyongyang announced that it would send people who crossed the border, including first-time “offenders” and those crossing only to find food, to prison for up to five years. Human Rights Watch recently interviewed 16 North Koreans who crossed the border to China between mid-July and early December 2006. They provided consistent testimonies on harsher punishments for those recently repatriated.
Between 2000 and 2004, many border-crossers had been either released after questioning, or served at most a few months at labor re-education facilities, unless they were found to have had contact with missionaries or South Koreans.
North Korean border-crossers who had been imprisoned described to Human Rights Watch the abuses they suffered, including strip searches, verbal abuse and threats, beatings, forced labor, little or no medical care, and severe shortages of food, often described as a “fistful of powdered cornstalk per meal.” As punishment for disobedience, former detainees said they were forced to hit their own heads against cell bars and to sit up and down repeatedly until they fainted. Such punishments were often inflicted for failing to sit still for hours on end, and collective punishments of entire groups of cellmates were common.
[Human Rights Watch]