Wednesday, March 12, 2008

China feels pressure over North Koreans

As the Olympics approach, activists push Beijing to halt its crackdown on refugees from its impoverished neighbor and those who help them defect to South Korea.

North Koreans cross over the Tumen River in an attempt to defect to South Korea. High barbed-wire fences have been erected along the banks of the Tumen River, which runs along part of China's border with North Korea. Recently, the Chinese have started blocking routes leading out of China as well, installing ultrared heat and motion sensors in the desert terrain near the border with Mongolia. Mobile telephone calls and e-mails among activists are monitored, and informants pose as defectors to infiltrate safe houses where North Koreans are hiding. Those caught are repatriated to North Korea.

Human rights advocates are now pushing China for at least a truce in honor of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing in August. The treatment of North Koreans, along with concerns that China is not doing enough to stop the bloodshed in the Darfur region of ally Sudan, threatens to shadow the Games.

"These Olympics are just about the most important international event in Chinese history. If they want to brag to the world about what a safe and stable place China is, they have to do something for the refugees," said Do Hee-youn, who runs a fund for North Korean defectors in Seoul.

There are some indications that the Chinese are paying heed. In December, they unexpectedly released Yu Sang-jun, a defector who had become an activist. Caught guiding refugees to the border, he was held for less than four months, a short stay compared with the years-long sentences doled out to others who did the same. Christian activists in Seoul had lobbied hard for Yu's release and were delighted when he arrived safely home. But the activists were not counting on his release signaling a change of course by the Chinese.

"At best, they'll put on a public relations show for the Olympics," activist Tim Peters said. "But it won't be anything more than smoke and mirrors."

[Excerpt of an article by Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times]

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