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Korean-Chinese activist on N.K. granted asylum

Publication Date : 23-08-2012


A Korean-Chinese woman who fled China after helping North Koreans escape to the country was granted asylum in South Korea in a landmark court ruling yesterday.

The Seoul Administrative Court, reversing an earlier rejection by the justice ministry, decided to give refugee status to the 38-year-old Lee who fled here on a fishing boat last March.

"Because Lee aided many North Koreans, the possibility of a heavy punishment once she goes back to China is large," the court ruled. "China's 'legal' penalty is severe enough to be considered persecution in Korea."

China does not acknowledge North Korean defectors within its borders and imposes punishment as severe as life imprisonment for those who assist North Koreans fleeing from their country.

Lee, who lived in a town near the North Korea-China border, crossed over the Aprok River linking the two communist countries several times to help some 20 North Koreans defect between October 2010 and February 2011. She claimed there was no financial compensation in exchange for her aid.

In March last year, the Chinese Public Security Bureau attempted to arrest Lee. Although she managed to escape by boat to South Korea along with her daughter and other North Korean escapees, her husband was caught. He is said to have received long-term imprisonment.

Lee applied for refugee status after the boat carrying Lee and others was seized by the Korean coast guard. The justice ministry rejected her plea, saying her claim "lacks credibility, and even if it were to be true, her crime was not serious enough to warrant a heavy penalty in China.

Yesterday's ruling came as a surprise, considering South Korea has been hesitant to grant refugee status to ethnic Koreans living in China, apparently fearing potential diplomatic tensions with the country.

The ruling also revealed the court's stance that the penalty given to the patrons of North Korean refugees by the Chinese government is excessive enough to be considered persecution.


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