Wednesday, January 23, 2008

China frees North Korea’s ‘Pimpernel’

dissident who risked being sent home from China to certain execution has been released one month after The Sunday Times revealed his plight. Yoo Sang-joon, 36, was the key activist in an underground Christian network that smuggles North Korean refugees across China to safety in other countries.

He landed in Seoul after the Chinese authorities bowed to diplomatic pressure and freed him after four months in secret detention.

His arrival was greeted with joy among the Christian community in South Korea, who had feared for his life. “It’s a wonderful Christmas gift,” said Tim Peters, a pastor who works with the refugees.

North Korean agents were demanding his return under a treaty between the two communist allies, even though he held a passport from South Korea. Yoo is one of the most wanted men in Kim Jong-il’s North Korea. “He would have been executed,” said Peters.

Yoo’s wife and daughter died in the North Korean famine of the 1990s and his surviving son died, aged 10, on a trek across the Gobi desert to seek safety in Mongolia.

It was the second time this year that international publicity had saved refugees from deportation back to North Korea.

Three orphaned children held in jail in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, were threatened with a forced return home. They were released and handed over to the South Korean embassy a few days after The Sunday Times published a photograph and letters from them pleading for help.

Refugees who are sent back to North Korea face some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. They have reported beatings, abuse and harsh conditions in camps and prisons. Some have been executed. Pregnant women have suffered forced abortions and the murder of their babies.

[Excerpt of Sunday Times article, by Michael Sheridan]

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