A group of human rights lawyers will defend a Chinese-Korean Christian woman who was jailed for helping to smuggle 61 North Koreans across the China border.
The lawyers believe the case of Li Mingshun, the Chinese Korean humanitarian, is important in defending the rights of North Korean refugees in China, even though it is an indirect way of doing so. Through the case, the Chinese rights attorneys hope to attract international attention to the plight of North Korean refugees in China and challenge the Chinese government’s treatment of them, according to China Aid Association.
Li Mingshun became a Christian in 1985, and then in 2008 she co-founded an underground seminary with a Korean pastor to train North Korean house church leaders.
In April 2009, the Border Brigade of Erlianhaote city of Inner Mongolia (a Mongol autonomous region located in the northernmost area of China) requested her help in an investigation. She was instead detained and her family was told to pay a 100,000 yuan ($14,600) fine in order for her to be released. Her family could not pay and she has remained in prison.
Authorities have also threatened to arrest her daughter, Piao Zhengying, for her involvement in helping North Korean refugees in China. Three other Christians have already been detained in relations to the case, but two have been released because they are under the age of 17.
It is estimated that at least 500,000 North Koreans have crossed the border over to China in the past 10 years. China considers these North Koreans illegal economic migrants and has forcefully repatriated them to North Korea, where they face imprisonment, torture, and even death for leaving the country.
It is illegal in North Korea to go beyond the borders.
But the U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea has declared North Koreans who flee to China are “refugees” deserving of protection. North Koreans risk their lives to cross the border to find food and to escape the country’s oppressive regime.
North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, with about 9 million people needing urgent food assistance, according to the World Food Program. The country has also been wracked with famines and natural disasters. A severe famine in the 1990s alone is believed to have killed millions of the country’s citizens.
The United Nations, the United States, and human rights organizations around the world have decried China’s treatment of the North Korean refugees, especially because many countries welcome North Korean refugees to resettle in their land. These countries include South Korea – where North Koreans have automatic citizenship – and the United States. Human rights groups argue that China has no reason to feel burdened by the refugees and send them back to North Korea where they face severe punishments.
According to CAA, many Chinese house church Christians, despite the risks, are actively involved in caring for the refugees by providing food, shelter and underground Bible training. Chinese Christians also are reportedly helping the refugees escape to Mongolia, where the Mongolian government permits them to go to South Korea.