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Defected to China, Forcibly Repatriated Back to North Korea by Chinese Authorities and Imprisoned in North Korea (1)
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Defected to China, Forcibly Repatriated Back to North Korea by Chinese Authorities and Imprisoned in North Korea (1)

 

Min-Bok LEE

former member, North Korean Science Academy

 

 

I was born in North Korea in 1958 and was one of the leading plant genetic engineers in North Korea. I was a faithful believer in the North Korean system. However, I became totally disllusioned when I was cautioned for making a policy recommendation to Kim Il Sung on how to increase food production. 

I defected from North Korea to China at night on November 29, 1990. I made it from Pungyang-ni village, Kim Jong Suk District, Yanggang Province of North Korea, to District 14, Changbai City, Jilin Province, China. I was arrested on the street the next day. During my interrogation at a Chinese detention center specialized to handle only North Korean defectors, they discovered my pictures of South Korean relatives. This betrayed my claim that my objective of defection to China was for scientific observation in China. In a desperate attempt to defend my statement, I jumped up from my seat in a very quick move, grabbed the pictures on the interrogator's desk and stuffed them into the stove next to him. I was so badly beaten by the infuriated interrogator that he thought I might die soon and rushed to repatriate me to North Korea while I was still alive. They repatriated me to North Korea only a few hours later. 

In North Korea, I was detained in the special State Security Police detention center in Hyesan city, a detention center specialized to handle only repatriated defectors. My prisoner No. was 223. The fact of detention of forcibly repatriated defectors in a special state security detention centre is proof of the persecution of defectors as political prisoners. The presence of such special detention centers both in China and North Korea proves that forciable repatriation of North Korean defectors from China to North Korea and their persecution in North Korea have been institutionalized. One of such centers was located in Hyesan city, the provincial capital of Yanggando province of North Korea. If recognized by investigation as a smuggler or for a non-political offense at these special centers, the prisoners are transferred to the ordinary police for punishment. "Politicals" are sent to the concentration camps for life. I was subject to extreme brutality and the most degrading and cruel treatment during the investigation at the center. During my detention, Chae-Chul Kim, 32 years-old, a man with a family, and the leader of a construction team from Paegam district, was beaten to death by guards. I know of cases of attempted suicide brought on by the severe hardships perpetuated in the prison. There was an average of two defectors a day repatriated from China to this center during the 3 months I was there. Some of the prisoners I met during my detention include: 

1. A young man whose father was a senior government official 

He defected from North Korea and made his way almost to Hong Kong before he was arrested by the Chinese authorities. When I was being interrogated, he was next to me for interrogation. His interrogator shouted at him, "Your father is such a senior government official. Yet you attempted to betray your fatherland and made it almost to Hong Kong on your way to South Korea!" There was no excuse he could make and he looked so disappointed, wretched, and hopeless. 

2. A resident of Hyesan city, about 40 years old. 

He had defected to China and lived there for a few years when he was arrested and repatriated to North Korea. Once, he shouted at his interrogator, "Why did I go to China if North Korea was a better place to live than China!" Infuriated by his surprising (and unthinkable) protest, the interrogator poured cold water on him and kept him outside very cold weather. He was the only prisoner getting food from his family occasionally, obviously by bribing guards. 

3. A North Korean army sergeant. 

He defected to China. He was returning to North Korea when arrested, which is very strange. His home was in Wunhung district, not far from Hyesan city. He arrived as a stout young man but looked wretched and miserable by the next day. 

4. A young man from Pyongyang at his early twenties 

His family was expelled to a remote country village from Pyongyang. He was arrested while attempting to defect to China. He looked haughty in agony and so sad. Once, he approached me to attempt to learn something from me for my interrogator. 

5. Prisoner No. 227 in my cell 

He was from the southern part of North Korea (Shinggye district, Hwanghae province). He read a leaflet which was spread by balloons released from South Korea, walked hundreds of kilometers and crossed the border to China where he was arrested and repatriated back to North Korea against his will. He attempted fasting and suicide, hoping for speedy transfer to a concentration camp, because he could not take the brutality any more during the interrogation at the center. He seemed prepared to do anything for security officers. Once, he told me, "try the taste of salt. It's sweet!" 

6. A young man in my cell 

A son of a high ranking party leader. Defected to China where he stayed 4 months before being arrested on a train. Once he approached me with a lie that his father was also a scientist and he respect scientists. I believe he was asked by security officers to approach me for confessions I did not want to make. Prisoners are so severely starved that many of them would be delighted to inform the interrogators about other prisoners for a little food or a cigarette. 

During my detention of over 3 months, there was an average of some 50 to 60 prisoners. All repatriated from China. 

I was released on February 10, the next year (1991), for the following purported reasons: 

1. There was an internal instruction from Pyongyang, which I overheard from conversations among interrogators, that 1) North Korea had recently told the international community that there is no political prisoners in North Korea, 2) do not produce too many prisoners and 3) keep the number of prisoners to a minimum by sending the less serious offenders to local civil groups for guidance and supervision. 

2. My previous performance records were excellent as a recognized scientist and a devouted supporter of the party. 

3. My stay in China was very short, less than 12 hours, too short for any serious spy activity. 

4. I withstood beatings and persistently alleged that my objective was scientific observation in the interest of the state. 

In June of the same year (1991), I defected to China again. As time went by, I saw little chance for freedom in China so I defected to Russia in June 1992. I had been hiding in Russia when, with the help of a western correspondent, I was able to seek UNHCR protection and eventually I was granted a refugee certificate, copy attached, by the UNHCR office in Moscow in May 1994. I was able to arrive in South Korea in February, 1995 with the help of the International Commission of the Red Cross. 

Also attached are my sketches showing the detention centers specialized to handle only North Korean defectors in both China and North Korea and their locations. 

Further details of my account are available in the Newsletter of the "Citizens' Alliance to Help Political Prisoners in North Korea," Nos. 9~12, based in Seoul, Korea.