China is “cynically” taking advantage of the world’s focus on the Middle East to send hundreds of North Korean refugees back to the Hermit State, where they face “torture, prison or death”, an activist has warned MPs.
And Timothy Cho, who himself escaped the country as a teenager and who now lives in the UK, warns many more will face a similar fate if nobody speaks out.
Mr Cho, co-secretariat of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, has written to MPs this week pleading with them to raise the matter in Parliament as a matter of urgency.
He said: “I urge you to encourage the British Government to initiate a dialogue with Chinese authorities to facilitate the deportation of the remaining North Korean refugees to third countries, rather than sending them back to North Korea.
“I have personally experienced repatriation once, and I am familiar with the process of imprisonment, torture, and punishment that follows.
“Even if we can rescue just one person through these diplomatic efforts in collaboration with the South Korean government, it would be a significant achievement.”
Mr Cho, who also acts as a spokesman for the Christian persecution charity Open Doors UK and Ireland, says he is especially concerned about the significant number of escapees that originally fled due to their religious faith.
He added: “The punishment for anyone that has been associated with Christian churches or missionaries while they were in China are likely to be dealt with particularly severely, indeed many are likely to be executed.
“North Korea is ranked as the most dangerous place in the world by Open Doors’ World Watch List ranking, and that’s with very good reason.”
North of the border, SNP MSP Kate Forbes has tabled a motion for the matter to be debated in Holyrood and Mr Cho hopes that a Backbench Business Debate can be heard in the Commons.
The latest episode is not the first time China, led by President Xi Jinping, has repatriated North Koreans who have fled across their northern border -but numbers have been far lower in previous years.
Mr Cho continued: “It’s too late for those six hundreds who’ve already been repatriated.
“What we can do is to urge to Chinese authorities to deport any more escapees to a third country, such as the Philippines.
“This will ultimately allow them to reach South Korea safely.”
Mr Cho escaped from North Korea, led by Kim Jong-un, in his teens, after being repatriated once – facing imprisonment and brutal interrogation on his return.
Escaping a second time, he was once again arrested in China, but granted deportation to the Philippines after missionaries advocated for his safe release.
He added: “I was so lucky. If I had been returned to North Korea again, I would not be alive today.
“That’s a fate I want to spare my brothers and sisters, currently in prison in China.”