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Chinese city hunts for North Korean defector facing deportation who escaped from prison

Young North Koreans at a protest denouncing defectors in 2020. (Jon Chol Jin/AP)

Authorities in the northeastern Chinese city of Jilin are hunting for a North Korean defector who hopped a wall and escaped from prison Monday night.

Prison authorities identified the man as 39-year-old Zhu Xianjian, a North Korean national who was sentenced to more than a decade behind bars in 2014 on counts including illegal border crossing and armed robbery.

Chinese court documents indicate that Zhu crossed over to a Chinese border town in July 2013. The filings say he broke into three homes, where he stole about $230 in cash, a phone and six packs of North Korean cigarettes, among other items. During one of the break-ins, Zhu stabbed a homeowner in the back, according to court documents. He was apprehended by law enforcement less than two days after his escape from North Korea.

Zhu, who was scheduled to be released in August 2023, faced immediate deportation back to North Korea upon completing his sentence. While many North Korean defectors would be considered refugees under international law, China labels them illegal economic migrants and enforces repatriation under an agreement with its longtime ally.

A North Korean official provided testimony during a trial that Zhu had worked as a coal miner in North Hamgyong, a region that shares a long border with China’s Jilin province. Defectors fleeing the totalitarian regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have tried to cross via the Tumen River, which forms part of the North Korea-China border.

Life Under Kim Jong Un: Recent North Korean escapees relate how the secretive country has changed under the 'Great Successor.'

The journey is arduous and sometimes fatal, but attempts to leave North Korea have increased since the 1990s, amid severe economic deprivation and extensive political persecution.

Lina Yoon, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with The Washington Post that in recent years Pyongyang had “substantially increased” the prison sentences of defectors who were forcibly repatriated. In addition to “backbreaking labor,” former defectors may be subject to torture and sexual violence, she said.

As of July, about 450 North Korean men were in a Jilin prison waiting to be deported after serving time, according to Human Rights Watch.

A surveillance video from the Jilin prison, circulated by Chinese media, shows Zhu climbing to the rooftop of a shed abutting the prison wall, apparently disabling the electric fences around the prison and then jumping over the edge.

He remained at large as of Wednesday, and authorities said they were offering up to $23,000 as a reward for information leading to his capture. (The notice was subsequently taken down from local government social media accounts.) People who live near the prison told Chinese media that police had been knocking on doors and asking for details about the North Korean’s whereabouts.

Chinese prisoners and guards have been living and working in especially stressful circumstances since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Many prisons have implemented a “closed duty” system that requires officers to remain inside their facilities for an extended period of time to reduce risk of infection.

Guards in Tianjin, a city near Beijing, spend two weeks in centralized quarantine facilities before working two-week shifts inside prisons. The cycle is capped by two weeks of home quarantine. Another local government praised an officer last year for having worked 110 days continuously inside a prison.

Jilin prison authorities did not return requests for comment.