On May 28, while most of us were winding up our Memorial Day weekend, a brutal murder was occurring in another part of the world. A 40-year-old man who had been a son, brother and husband and the father of a little girl was being beaten to death by four people, one wielding a steel pipe. It took 20 minutes. It was carried out by officials of one country while officials from another country simply watched. The man was killed, according to government record, for the crime of "crossing the border."
His name was Sohn In Kuk, and the border he had crossed was that of his native North Korea. We would have known nothing about him except there were witnesses to his death and some people cared enough about him, and what was happening to North Korean refugees, to smuggle this evidence out of China: a picture of Sohn, his personal letter to all South Koreans and a photo of his "hearse" -- an official Chinese government vehicle that carried away his broken body.
In his hellish homeland of North Korea, Sohn had watched his family die away: mother, brother, wife, father and daughter from hunger or hunger-related causes. He left North Korea for China, as so many have done, in an attempt to survive. Sohn had served in the North Korean army, drafted at the age of 17. Distinguishing himself as a soldier and loyal party member, he was sent to the Korea Military Academy for six years and then became a radar officer/instructor working at secret posts. But he was discharged from the military in 1997 with the rank of major when he mishandled some official documents, and he went to work in a wood furniture factory, until he became so disillusioned with North Korea that he decided to flee the country.
His stint with the military may have caused him to make the "wanted list" that North Korea provides Chinese border authorities, but his beating may simply have been the result of his having "crossed the border" one time too many. According to eyewitness accounts, on the afternoon of May 28, 56 North Korean defectors, mostly women but also some men and children, were handed over by Chinese border authorities to the North Korean State Security Agency (SSA) in the Chinese border prison compound in Tumen, China.
The Chinese border guards and prison officials first processed the women, one by one, checking their names off the "serious crimes list," where their crimes were written as "crossing the border." The prisoners were handcuffed two by two and loaded onto a bus. Then it was time to process the men. Sohn was first in line, and when a North Korean SSA officer saw his face, he yelled in anger, "You again?" These were the last words Sohn heard. The North Korean SSA officers descended upon him and began to beat him, while the Chinese border guards and prison officials simply watched.
Sohn's death is just one example of the beatings, tortures and murders happening on the North Korea-China border as China rounds up people trying to flee their country. It is estimated that at least 200,000 North Koreans have fled their homeland in search of food and a new life in China. We do not have a full understanding of the situation because China refuses to allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to visit the border. China not only repatriates North Koreans in violation of international agreements it has signed, it also imprisons, tortures and deports the humanitarian workers who try to help the North Korean refugees.
China flatly denies it has any North Korean refugees and says the North Koreans within its borders are simply "economic migrants" because they come in search of food, not political freedom. But the fact is that in North Korea "crossing the border" is a very serious crime, punishable by a three-year prison sentence and, in the case of someone like Sohn, a death sentence.
We expect North Korea's government to commit these kinds of atrocities. After all, Kim Jong Il is directly murdering 42 North Koreans every day in his political prisoner camps and indirectly murdering 391 North Koreans every day by starving them to death. And these are the most conservative estimates.
We cannot allow China to continue to aid and abet Kim Jong Il's murderous regime. We must demand that China stop all repatriations of North Korean refugees, and we must demand that China allow the UNHCR access to this region. If the U.S. government is not willing to use economic leverage to make China comply with the international treaties it has signed, then all free people in the world should call for an international boycott of every product made in China and ask the International Olympic Committee to find another city for the 2008 Games.
Surely, the world can see that a country whose policy is to allow the murder and killing of neighbors whose only crime was "crossing the border" is no place for any international event, let alone one that celebrates goodwill among nations.
The writer is president of the Defense Forum Foundation and secretary of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.