BEIJING – A North Korean defector made a rare public appearance in China on Saturday, criticizing Beijing’s repatriation of asylum seekers despite alleged warnings from South Korea not to speak out.
Hyeonseo Lee, who escaped from North Korea to China in 1997, called on Beijing to let refugees from her original homeland — who it routinely sends back — pass “safely without being caught by the Chinese authorities.”
Human rights groups have for decades condemned Beijing for deporting North Korean asylum seekers, who they say face torture and imprisonment when repatriated.
China is North Korea’s sole major ally and chief trading partner. It has recently supported U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang after its fourth nuclear test, but restricts criticism of its neighbor in the media and in public venues. It generally says those deported are illegal economic migrants.
Lee said she was detained and interrogated by police after arriving in China in the 1990s. Though later released, she said she subsequently had to hide from authorities during her near 11-year stay in the country, fearing repatriation.
Speaking at a book festival to promote her recently published title “The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story” — which describes living in constant fear of Chinese authorities — Lee told an audience that China “has no obligation to listen (to) the North Korean regime.”
“China is a heaven compared to North Korea,” she said, but also described harassment by Chinese police.
“I want to tell the very basic things about what is happening to North Koreans here,” she said, speaking in English to an audience of several dozen mostly non-Chinese listeners.
“China is the place we have to cross, but here many people are caught, less than 50 percent will succeed.”
Lee said intelligence officials from South Korea, where she now lives, tried to dissuade her from visiting China, warning of possible damage to diplomatic relations.
“They are telling me I had to be careful in China, saying only talk about North Korea, don’t ever touch China, especially don’t touch the Chinese government,” she said.
China’s attitude toward North Korea has hardened as Pyongyang continues with an internationally-condemned nuclear program, but it defends the isolated communist state against criticism of its human rights record and routinely censors media that takes too critical a stance.
North Korea released a video Saturday showing a nuclear strike on Washington and threatened South Korea with a “merciless military strike” for slandering leader Kim Jong Un.
AFP could find no record of a North Korean defector previously giving a public speech in mainland China or publishing a book there.
“No defector made a public speech in China, but I have to make a stand and tell Chinese people the truth,” Lee said on Twitter.
She was encouraged by the reception of an earlier subtitled video in which she described her stay in China, viewed more than 110,000 times on Chinese video sites.
Speaking to AFP, she said: “I will not change the Chinese government,” adding: “people in the mainland, to let them know what their government is doing, that’s really crucial.”
“There are many evils living in China, human traffickers, but at the same time there are many good people,” she said.
“I’m grateful to those good people, but not the Chinese government.”