Chinese Christian Sentenced to Jail for Helping N. Korean Refugees

A Chinese Christian woman who aided North Korean refugees in their escape to South Korea was sentenced to ten years in prison, her family recently was notified.

Li Mingshun and her colleague Zhang Yonghu were arrested while crossing the border to Mongolia with North Korean refugees. Mongolia, unlike China, allows North Korean refugees to seek asylum in South Korea, where they have automatic citizenship.

On Aug. 30, Li was found guilty of providing humanitarian help for the refugees and sentenced to a decade in prison, according to ChinaAid Association. Zhang received a seven-year prison sentence for organizing transportation for the refugees to Inner Mongolia.

"I am shocked at how the Chinese government treats its own humanitarian workers. They are innocent," said ChinaAid president Bob Fu in a statement Tuesday.

The human rights lawyers defending Li and Zhang hope to raise the profile of the case to draw attention to the Chinese government's treatment of North Korean refugees.

Despite the Chinese government's effort, more than 10,000 North Koreans now reside in South Korea. But the number is not large considering that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have crossed the North Korea-China border.

At least 500,000 North Koreans are believed to have crossed the border over to China in the past 10 years.

North Korean refugees are officially considered illegal economic migrants by the Chinese government and therefore receive no legal protection in China. They are harshly treated and deported to North Korea even though North Koreans who flee to China are considered "refugees" as designated by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korea.

The United Nations, the United States, and human rights organizations around the world have decried China's treatment of the refugees, especially because many countries welcome North Korean refugees to resettle in their land. These countries include South Korea and the United States. Human rights groups argue that China has no reason to feel burdened by the refugees. But they are still returned to North Korea where they face torture and possibly death. It is a state crime to leave the country.

"We must urge the international community to voice their concerns for the persecuted North Korean refugees and the humanitarian workers who serve them in their time of need," Fu said.

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