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[Arnold Fang] South Korea must not expose North Koreans to risk of torture

The South Korean government’s decision on Nov. 8 to deport two fishermen originally from North Korea exposed the men to the risk of torture and other ill treatments in the North, and was unlawful under international law.

The government returned the two fishermen to North Korea within a week after they were intercepted by the South Korean Navy on Nov. 2. South Korean officials accused the two men of having killed 16 people aboard their fishing vessel.

South Korean media reported that the two men had clearly expressed in writing their desire to stay in the South. The hasty return of the men to the North has prematurely – and likely permanently – forestalled this possibility.

Kim Yeon-chul, South Korean Minister of Unification, labeled the two men as “criminals” and claimed that they would pose a threat to the lives and safety of others if allowed to remain in South Korea.

People who attempt to leave North Korea – even if they are unsuccessful or are returned to the country – are at risk of torture and other ill treatment, as well as possible execution. They are unlikely to receive a fair trial in North Korea.

The UN Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution on human rights in North Korea for 14 consecutive years, condemning the state for its severe human rights violations, including executions without fair trials and arbitrarily detaining people in its prison camp system, where torture, forced labor and other forms of ill treatment are widespread. Despite international pressure, there has been no apparent improvement or any slowdown in such acts of cruelty in the country.

No one should be returned to a country where they face a real risk of torture or other ill-treatment. This international legal principle, known as non-refoulement, is binding upon South Korea and applies to all people under South Korean jurisdiction – even those accused of serious crimes. The return of these two men by the South Korean government was not only inhumane, but also unlawful.

In this case, the South Korean government deviated from its prescribed procedures of dealing with North Koreans newly arriving in the South. Under usual circumstances, new arrivals from the North undergo a government-conducted resettlement process of up to three months, which includes a screening procedure to prevent espionage and an education program to help them get acquainted to life in South Korea.

If the two men had committed crimes prior to entering South Korea, their criminal responsibility should have been established in a fair trial, through domestic law and procedures in South Korea. These laws should also be in line with international human rights standards.

Questions remain regarding the whereabouts and safety of the two men since their forced return to North Korea. The international community must join hands to urge the North Korean government to provide this information, and to respect the rights of these men to life, to a fair trial and to be free from torture and other ill treatment.

South Korean authorities must also take concrete steps to prevent the reoccurrence of similar cases, including through prompt investigation and ensuring accountability. The authorities must also amend or clarify any existing laws and regulations to ensure that no asylum seekers from North Korea or elsewhere are sent back to a risk of torture and other ill treatment.

By Arnold Fang

Arnold Fang is Hong Kong-based researcher covering Korea at the Amnesty International East Asia Regional Office. He can be reached at -- Ed.