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North Korean defector describes horrors following Chinese repatriation

Security Council meets on Pyongyang human rights

A map of two Koreas on display at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea.   © Getty Images

UNITED NATIONS -- Beijing's forced repatriation of North Korean escapees came under fire Monday as a defector recounted the brutal treatment such returnees receive at the North's detention centers.

Ji Hyeon A, who was repatriated three times by China, told the room of diplomats and civil society representatives that she was brutally beaten at detention centers and forced to undergo an abortion. She also witnessed abuses such as harsh forced labor and babies dying "without ever being able to see their mothers."

Detainees were fed raw locusts, discarded cabbage leaves, skinned frogs and rats, Ji said.

The presentation, held here on the sidelines of a Security Council meeting about North Korean human rights, was co-hosted by the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, Japan, South Korea and the U.K.

Ji succeeded in her fourth escape attempt, fleeing to South Korea in 2007.

"I ask U.N. officials and representatives around the world to fight for freedom and human rights of North Koreans and repatriated defectors who do not even have the right to know or the right to own," she said.

Beijing regards North Korean defectors crossing into Chinese territory as "economic migrants," and China therefore does not consider itself bound by the Geneva Convention -- which prevents the forcible repatriation of refugees fleeing persecution. But U.N. human rights officials have argued that North Koreans in China should be considered "refugees sur place," meaning they would be persecuted upon return.

"If there's nothing else we do, I hope that we'll have the conversation about repatriation," U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said following Ji's testimony. "Because we may not be able to do anything on the inside, but if they have the courage and they take the chance and they do flee North Korea, we should try and find a solution [for] them on the outside."

In remarks to the Security Council earlier that morning, Haley blasted the North's human rights abuses, including its use of political prison camps, where an estimated 100,000 North Koreans are thought to be imprisoned. Noting the link between human rights and security, Haley argued that Pyongyang's "menacing march towards nuclear weapons begins with the oppression and exploitation of ordinary North Korean people."

Monday's meeting marks the fourth by the council to discuss human rights in the North. Such a meeting has been held annually since the publication of the groundbreaking report of the Commission of Inquiry, which found Pyongyang's institutions and officials responsible for rights violations that "reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."

But the meeting was not without opposition. China, Russia and Bolivia sought to shutter discussion in a procedural vote held before adopting the issue on the council's agenda, with two other countries abstaining. The meeting was allowed to continue after garnering the support of 10 of the council's 15 members. Nine affirmative votes are needed to permit a meeting.

"The primary responsibility of the Security Council is to maintain international peace and security," China's deputy ambassador, Wu Haitao, told the council in remarks before requesting a vote. "The Security Council is not the forum to debate human rights issues, nor should we allow human rights issues to be politicized."

Council members should seek ways to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and "avoid mutual provocation and words or actions that might further escalate the situation," Wu said. Such a discussion of human rights "runs counter to [those] objectives and is counterproductive," he said.

Haley made a different argument.

"As much as the secretary-general and this council talk about prevention when it comes to conflict, prevention is about how a country treats its people as well," she said, adding that "prevention also includes human rights, and being able to call out countries when they do abuses like this."

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