Han, a N Korean refugee in Sweden who crossed 7,000 km to escape dictatorship and poverty
Seoul (AsiaNews) - A 17-year-old, who claims he made a 7,000km journey by fording a frozen river into China and crossing two continents in cars, the trans-Siberian railway and on the back of a truck, is currently caught up in a diplomatic kerfuffle in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden.
The teenager, who goes by the pseudonym Han Song to avoid reprisals by North Korean agents, fears Sweden will deport him to China because he has no genuine papers. A recent controversy involving another North Korean refugee does not help.
"I can't speak Chinese," Han told Reuters. It "is hard for me to prove anything," he said, speaking in Korean with a strong North Korean accent.
Every year, hundreds of people flee North Korea's desolation and poverty. However, most are stopped in China and returned. A few manage to go farther, but for Sweden, this is a first.
Sweden and North Korea have diplomatic relations. However, Kim Jong-un's regime does not provide information on its citizens even when they are abroad.
Things have been complicated by a recent controversy involving Shin Dong-hyuk, author of Escape from Camp 14, and main witness in a UN investigation against North Korea. Only this month, he recanted about half the claims he made in his testimonies.
For his part, Han claims he does not know who Shin is. Instead, he told Swedish officials his incredible escape story in great detail, and they are now vetting it.
Born in Songbuk County, a rural and sparsely populated corner of North Korea that juts into China, the boy says he lost his mother when he was seven. His father was later imprisoned for criticising former leader Kim Jong-il.
Alone, he ran away and became a 'kotjebi,' a terms to describe homeless, orphaned children. And like most kotjebi, he begged for food, usually as part of a group of other homeless children, loitering on the fringes of markets, foraging for scraps.
Then a wealthy trader, a former army colleague of his father, came to his help. "He was warm hearted, caring and helpful. He was quite rich around his neighbourhood because he was selling many daily commodities smuggled from China," Han explained.
With his help, Han managed to flee the country across the Tumen River, on the border with China. On a frosty March night in 2013, Han said he walked across the frozen river and met his broker, who after getting paid by his father's old friend, took the boy to a safe house where he and a small group of other refugees hid for a few days.
With fake Chinese papers, they entered Russia's Far East and took the Trans-Siberian railway. During a weeklong journey across two continents, Han said he lay low in the cabin, eating stale bread.
At the end, he was in Sweden. However, "I didn't even know where Sweden was," he said. "The broker helped me get here". Then, three weeks after he crossed the Tumen River, Han turned himself in to the Red Cross in Stockholm and asked for refugee status.
Now the Swedish authorities face a dilemma. To find a solution, they sent the boy's fingerprints to the Chinese and South Korean embassies to determine whether he is a citizen of either country.
If China does not confirm he is a Chinese citizen, and neither Han nor the Swedish authorities are able to prove his identity, he will probably be allowed to stay in Sweden on humanitarian grounds. After a period of four years, he could apply for Swedish citizenship.
In South Korea, Seoul-based Citizen's Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR) has taken up Han's case and called on the Swedish government to "err on the side of ensuring the boy's safety and refrain from deporting him to China".
"If Sweden refuses to protect him, NKHR urges the South Korean government to seek the boy's deportation to South Korea," the group said.