North Korea has released a young mother who was expected to be sentenced to life in a prison camp, in an unusual move that offers rare hope for a potential improvement in human rights during an ongoing thaw of international diplomatic ties.
Koo Jeong-hwa was detained in early November after she crossed into China with eight other would-be defectors, including her four-year-old son, in an attempt to join her husband Taewon Lee who was already in South Korea.
In an emotional interview with The Telegraph, Mr Lee, 29, said he had “collapsed on the floor” when he first heard of their arrest. Fearing they would sent to prison camp or killed, he pleaded with the South Koreans and international community to prevent their repatriation.
“Even if they forgive my son, his background will be that his father went to South Korea, his mother was in prison camp or executed. He will have no family, maybe he will become a street child,” the devastated father said.
Despite his efforts, the Chinese returned his family and Ms Koo was held in a detention centre in the northwestern city of Hoeryeong, accused of committing treason.
Her son was initially imprisoned with her but sent to his grandmother after 20 days, suffering from frostbite on his hands and feet.
Although released, he was still at risk of being sent to a political prison camp with his mother had she been sentenced, due to the regime’s “guilt by association” practice.
However, in an unprecedented reprieve, the authorities also released Ms Koo, Amnesty International said on Monday.
“This is a very rare opportunity to enjoy some good news from North Korea,” said Arnold Fang, Amnesty’s East Asia researcher. “We are delighted that Koo Jeong-hwa is no longer facing the threat of torture, other ill treatment and lifelong internment in a prison camp,” he added.
Mr Fang said the recent improvement in inter-Korean relations, as well as pressure from the international community may have been helpful in securing her otherwise unlikely release.
But despite the leniency shown to Ms Koo, as many as 130,000 fellow North Koreans are believed to be languishing in the country’s labour camps.
He added: “The spotlight is on North Korea given the upcoming summits. Governments should utilise that attention to press for a guarantee of the release of the remainder of those who were repatriated.”
Just two weeks ago, the group highlighted the case of another 44 year old North Korean mother of two, known only as Ms Park, who faces repatriation and prison amid an ongoing Chinese crackdown on defectors.
“Kim Jong-un would do a great deal to show that his recent overtures to Seoul, Beijing, and Washington are predicated on a genuine desire for change by immediately improving the human rights situation in the country,” said Mr Glendinning.
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