A North Korean nuclear scientist who defected from the Hermit Kingdom reportedly committed suicide inside his prison cell after he was forcibly returned by China.
The man, said to be in his 50s, worked at the physics center of the State Academy of Sciences in Pyongyang, an anonymous source told Radio Free Asia on Thursday. “He was showing signs of anxiety over his research projects,” the source from North Korea’s North Hamyong Province said. He added that the man didn’t notify his family.
The source identified the man as Hyun Cheol Huh, though his name has not been officially confirmed.
Although it’s unclear when the man fled North Korea, he was reportedly detained with a group of defectors in the northeastern city of Shenyang, China, on Nov. 4 after they crossed the border. Nearly two weeks later, Chinese officials sent them back to the city of Sinuiju in North Korea, just several miles from the border, on Nov. 17, despite the strong likelihood they would be executed or tortured. The group included 10 others, including a child.
The man took his own life by drinking poison just hours after being placed in solitary confinement and before he was interrogated, the source told RFA. It’s unclear, however, when he was placed in solitary and how he was able to conceal the poison.
China — which North Korea views as its most significant trading partner — labels North Korean defectors as illegal immigrants, not refugees, and routinely returns them to the reclusive country.
But the man likely never told Chinese officials that he was a nuclear scientist. If he had, Chinese officials likely wouldn’t have deported him and instead, kept him in the country to learn what he knew of North Korea’s nuclear program, the source said.
China has been “intensifying its crackdowns on North Korean escapees,” according to a Human Rights Watch report released in September. The country has detained at least 41 defectors in July and August alone, compared to 51 detained between July 2016 and July 2017. The report doesn’t note how many of those detainees were sent back to the North but estimates that 37 North Koreans have been forcibly returned from China since July 2016.
“China has known for years that North Korea security officials use torture as a matter of longstanding state policy and practice, and imprison people who leave the country without permission,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “By returning them to a place of torture and persecution, China is clearly violating international law and its obligations as a nation that has ratified the UN Refugee Convention.”
Cover image: Large-sized trucks go through from North Korea at the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge in Dandong, China on Dec.29, 2017. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)