08/27/2004, 00.00
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North Korean guards kill defectors crossing border

Seoul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Recent reports suggest that Pyongyang has launched a crackdown on defection following the recent escape of 450 of its citizens to South Korea who, after travelling through China, asked for political asylum in Hanoi, Vietnam. The result has been several North Korean defectors killed as they made their way across the border with China.

Helping Hands, a US non governmental organisation (NGO), stated that North Korean security checks along the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas have been stepped up. "A foreigner familiar with the defectors' situation reported hearing machine-gun fire at the border area, which made him think North Korea had issued a shoot-to-kill policy," said Tim Peters of Helping Hands, following a visit to the border area last week.

Mr Peters spoke of reports of people apparently killed during attempts to cross into China. According to him "there is every indication that North Korean authorities are trying to do everything in their power to prevent people from crossing into China." He added: "I was told of at least two, perhaps three bodies floating in the Tumen River. Of course it is impossible to identify them, but at this time of year they are unlikely to be fishermen. My educated guess is that they are defectors." The water levels of the river that marks the border between China and North Korea drop in summertime making the crossing easier.

Members of the group North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), a South Korean NGO, could not confirm the shootings, but said that Pyongyang recently stepped up security on the border with China. "We've heard that there was an increase in the number of North Korean secret agents in China and that the border was reinforced with barbed electric wire and additional guards," NKHR's Joanna Hosaniak said.

In recent years the number of North Koreans illegally entering China to buy food for sale at home has been rising. Border controls by North Korea became somewhat lax at the end of the 1990s and guards could more easily turn a blind eye for some cigarettes, food, or money.

China signed a treaty with North Korea pledging to repatriate any North Korean national found on its territory. Many defectors who were repatriated were sent to prison and forced labour. (LF)

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