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Japan, the United States and South Korea must persuade Beijing to stop sending people who flee North Korea back to the country, a Japanese aid worker who recently served eight months in a Chinese prison for trying to smuggle two such people to safety, urged Thursday.

Recently returned to Japan, Takayuki Noguchi, 33, was detained in December in the city of Nanning, Guangxi Province, while trying to help two Japan-born North Koreans flee to Vietnam via China.

He was sentenced in late June to eight months in prison and fined 20,000 yuan (about 260,000 yen). He was released Aug. 9, after his time in custody was taken into account.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Noguchi criticized the way China is handling the increasing number of North Koreans attempting to flee their country.

The two he was helping were apparently handed over to North Korea after his arrest, he said without citing the source of his information. One of the two, a woman, was recently released after a stint in a labor camp, but the other, a man, may have died, he said.

“We should talk to the Chinese government, not to accuse them, but to talk, ask for some leeway for the North Koreans,” Noguchi said.

Severe food shortages and a repressive government are forcing an increasing number of North Koreans to cross into China. Aid workers say at least 100,000 are currently in hiding in China.

Lee Young Hwa, an assistant professor at Kansai University and a representative of the nongovernmental organization Rescue the North Korean People Urgent Action Network, said Beijing has recently stepped up efforts to crack down on North Korean escapees as well as the people who aid them.

“The recent trend is that (non-North Koreans) are getting longer sentences, whereas they were previously released soon after writing an essay repenting their actions,” he said.

Aid-monitoring team

The government will send a team to North Korea around October to monitor whether Japan’s humanitarian aid is being distributed appropriately to the people, government sources said Thursday.

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