- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, Feb. 18 (UPI) — Families and human-right activists demonstrated near the Chinese Embassy in Seoul Tuesday, calling for the release of South Koreans detained in China for helping North Korean refugee seekers.

Some 200 protesters also urged China to free all North Koreans caught in China after their failed attempts to seek asylum and stop forcible repatriation of detained North Koreans to their communist homeland.

They chanted slogans, "Let North Koreans go!" "Stop repatriation of North Korean refugees!"

Chinese police posing as smugglers arrested 48 North Korean refugees last month shortly before they were to be secretly ferried out of China and taken to South Korea and Japan.

The Chinese government confirmed it had also detained two South Koreans suspected of helping the North Koreans find asylum. They included a freelance photographer working for The New York Times.

Beijing's Foreign Ministry said the two South Koreans were suspected of "smuggling or organizing smuggling and are now on criminal detention."

"My husband is neither a smuggler nor an human right activist, but a journalist," said tearful Kang Hae-won, the wife of the photographer, Seok Jae-hyun. "Please help me meet my husband."

The South Korean photographer was arrested while covering the North Korean refugee seekers who were trying to sneak out of China's Shandong province by boat and go to South Korea or Japan.

Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are believed to be hiding in China after leaving their poverty-stricken homeland in search of food or to avoid political repression. More than 1,200 defected to South Korea last year.

Most North Korean asylum seekers travel to South Korea by way of China, which shares a long land border with North Korea, because the inter-Korean land border is the world's most heavily armed boundary.

Beijing, which views North Koreans fleeing to China as economic migrants and not refugees, has in the past sent back asylum seekers to the North, where it is feared they face persecution.

"Beijing should not ignore the plight of the North Korean refuge seekers stranded in China, because Beijing is a proud signatory of the U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951," Tim Peters, director of Helping Hands Korean, said in an address. "We should make more efforts to meet the urgent needs of North Koreans in crisis."

Seoul-based activist Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who organized the January attempt for North Koreans to sneak into South Korea by boat, vowed to step up efforts to rescue North Korean refugee-seekers.

"We will travel soon to the border village of Panmunjom as part of efforts to highlight the plight of North Koreans," Vollertsen told United Press International.

Vollertsen and other human right activists also blamed the South Korean government for not doing enough to bring in North Korean refugee seekers in China.

Seoul's government has maintained a low profile about the stream of North Korean refugees for fear of possible friction with the Pyongyang regime.

"The (Seoul) government is urged to raise the refugee issue as a formal diplomatic agenda with China for a fundamental resolution to their plight," said Bae Jae-hyun, the head of the Citizens' Coalition for Human rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees, which organized Tuesday's street demonstration.

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