Cruel and unusual punishment

North Korea | Missionary couple laments the reported execution of two young North Korean defectors and the inhumane imprisonment of seven others
by Sophia Lee
Posted 12/08/14, 12:40 pm

UPDATE: A U.S. State Department spokesperson said it is “deeply troubling” if the reports are true about what has become of the nine North Korean defectors. 

“These reported actions are deplorable and in line with the ongoing, systematic, and widespread human rights violations and the treatment of North Korean refugees in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] documented in the UN Commission of Inquiry report,” the spokesperson said.

The State Department representative said the United States continues to urge North Korea to stop violating the commission’s recommendations while urging other countries in the region to protect North Korean refugees within their borders, adhering to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.  

“We continue to work with other countries in the region and international organizations, including the UN Human Rights Council and UNHCR, to raise attention to the deplorable human rights conditions in the DPRK and to protect North Korean refugees and asylum seekers seeking safe haven in other countries,” the spokesperson said.

OUR EARLIER REPORT (Dec. 6, 11:09 a.m.): News has filtered out of North Korea that of the nine young North Korean defectors who were repatriated by Laos last year, two have been executed, and the remaining seven have been sent to North Korea’s notorious prison camp—a modern-day gulag and hellhole of torture, forced labor, and inhumane conditions.

A South Korean missionary couple who had taken care of the defectors while they were hiding in northeast China confirmed the report to me but the exact dates of the executions and prison sentences remain unclear.

One of the Christian missionaries, who will be identified as “Jang” for safety reasons, told me he initially heard through a female North Korean refugee in South Korea that all nine defectors had been executed. The woman had just recently defected from the same hometown to which North Korean officials returned the nine defectors, and she was also well connected with underground churches in North Korea.

Jang refused to believe her at first. He cried and begged for the woman to verify the information once again. The woman immediately made a phone call to her hometown in North Korea and requested verification of their situation through local residents. Several days later, she confirmed that only two of the defectors had been executed, but the other seven were in now prison camp.

“This is unbelievable,” Jang said. “My heart breaks for the fact that all that work trying to rouse media and international sympathies for the kids were for nothing. But it breaks even more when I think about the seven kids still suffering in prison camp. I can’t sleep anymore with that thought in my mind.”

Efforts to obtain a statement from the U.S. State Department on these latest developments have so far been unsuccessful.

The nine young defectors, all believed to be orphans between the ages of 15 and 23, had been in Oudomxay, a province in north Laos, posing as a tourist group with Jang and his wife when they were intercepted by Laotian authorities. They had previously crossed Sino borders into Southeast Asia to eventually seek asylum in South Korea, a typical underground railroad most North Korean refugees have used for years.

After their detainment, Jang said he had paid US$1,500 to Laotian immigration officials who had demanded the money in exchange for sending the nine directly to the South Korean Embassy. But that did not happen. On May 27, 2013, the young defectors were flown back to their homeland from China, still falsely believing the officials’ claim that they were being transported to South Korea.

It was the first time Laos had handed North Korean refugees directly over to North Korean agents. The act shocked the international community and human rights activists, since repatriated defectors will most certainly face persecution and ill treatment in North Korea. In the midst of public outcry, Laotian Foreign Ministry officials said that the South Korean Embassy had not filed an official request to visit them—only the North Korean Embassy had. But throughout the event, Jang and his wife had been in contact with the South Korean Embassy, whose officials waited until the defectors had already been deported before attempting to discuss the issue with Laotian officials.

Immediately after the incident, the media and high-profile organizations made plenty of noise to both warn and plea to North Korean authorities for mercy. The United Nations criticized Laos and China for sending the nine back in outright violation of international human rights law. Amnesty International issued an “Urgent Action” document urging the international community to appeal to North Korean authorities to cease all ill treatment of defectors. A U.S. State Department spokeswoman issued a statement saying the Obama administration is “very concerned” and is monitoring the situation.

Jang and his wife had taken custody of the orphans after they found them roaming Chinese streets like rats sniffing for food and shelter. But high-level pleas, public outcry, and international media attention failed to sway the North Korean decision to punish the young defectors for the national crime of crossing the strictly patrolled borders. Typically, young and orphaned defectors are let go after a lighter punishment. But in the case of these nine defectors, it is likely that their punishment was more severe because they had been in contact with Christians.

Ever since the nine defectors—seven males and two females—were sent back to their homeland more than a year ago, any updates on their situation sank into the dark, mysterious folds of the totalitarian hermit nation. All communication to the nine defectors was shut off, other than their brief appearance on state-owned propaganda TV, in which one of the young girls was seen wiping tears from her red-rimmed eyes, while the others kept their expressions blank.

Meanwhile, public interest in the nine defectors gradually waned. But Jang and his wife were still grieving when I met the missionary couple this summer in Seoul. The event is carved so deeply into their hearts that even the profile name they use for emails and text messages commemorate May 27, 2013, the date the nine were flown back to North Korea. Their eyes would tear up whenever they talked or thought about the kids. They etched the nine names into beach sands, screamed their names into the wind, and prayed fervently for their safe return. At the time, the missionary couple was still hopeful that North Korean authorities would spare the defectors since they were so young and the event had been made so public.

“We thought that surely, once this fiasco was over, North Korean officials would free the kids and the kids would once again cross the river and look for us,” Jang said. “We wept and prayed and longed for the day we meet again.”

So they waited. They faked their identities once again and returned to China to the house where they had sheltered and raised North Korean orphans for three years. They prowled the river bordering North Korea and China, hoping to see a kid wading across it again. They sat in the house, praying and waiting to hear that knock. After all, some of the kids had been repatriated four times and yet managed to escape each time—so why not a fifth time?

That hope died with the recent news and confirmation of their execution and imprisonment, but Jang said he believes there has to be a reason why God allowed such a tragic thing to happen: “We have seen so clearly, through our kids, how much God desires for Christians to look upon the suffering orphans and souls in North Korea. But people are starting to forget them. God, however, still pines for His called souls in North Korea. Someone has to consistently stir public attention in order for people to continue caring. We truly hope that people will not forget all the prayers that they’ve once uttered in their hearts. Please turn your ears to the voices of the young suffering souls in North Korea.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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