South Korea reiterated on Tuesday its demand that China investigate accusations by a South Korean activist that he was tortured by Chinese security officers, ratcheting up pressure in a case that has already caused tensions.
Following the assertions of the activist, Kim Young-hwan, the Foreign Ministry also said it would interview an estimated 620 South Koreans known to have been held in China on allegations of various crimes to see if any of them were tortured. In addition, a spokesman for the ministry said the government would “actively support” Kim’s plan to take his case to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.
The spokesman, Cho Tai-young, said the Chinese government, which denied torturing Kim, has not responded to South Korea’s repeated demands for a new investigation.
Kim, 49, who has said he was trying to help North Korean refugees in China, was arrested with three other activists from the South on March 29. They were held for 114 days on charges of endangering national security until they were expelled on July 20.
The case has snowballed since Kim’s release. Last week, he called a news conference at which he announced that he was tortured and that the Chinese authorities had tried to make him sign a statement denying any mistreatment and admitting to violating Chinese laws as a condition of his release, something he refused to do. He has since provided South Korean news media with details of his alleged torture.
“They put a cattle prod, wrapped in electric coils, inside my clothes and placed it on my chest and back,” Kim told Chosun Ilbo, a mass-circulation daily newspaper in South Korea. “It felt like being continuously electrocuted.
“I could smell my flesh burning,” he said. “They also threatened several times to send me to North Korea.”
China and South Korea, which fought against each other during the Korean War in the early 1950s, have built booming economic ties in recent years but maintain an uneasy diplomatic relationship, mainly over differences in how to deal with North Korea and refugees from the impoverished country.
Since a famine hit North Korea in the late 1990s, South Korean activists, many of them Christian missionaries, have traveled to China to help the North Koreans fleeing hunger and brutality, often helping smuggle them to South Korea. China, an ally of North Korea, considers the North Koreans illegal immigrants, regularly rounding them up and shipping them home, where they could face harsh punishment in prison camps.
But activists who work in China say the government is erratic in how it treats the smuggling operations, sometimes seeming to turn a blind eye and other times cracking down.
Although other South Koreans have been imprisoned in China for their efforts to help North Koreans there, Kim’s case has an especially high profile because he was a well-known leader of street protests in the 1980s that helped end decades of dictatorship in the South.
Some other activists who have been detained in China say they, too, were tortured and threatened with the possibility of being sent to North Korea during interrogations.
“They said even if they killed and buried me, no one would notice,” one of the activists, Choi Young-hoon, said during an interview on TV Chosun.
Choi, a South Korean human rights advocate who spent nearly four years in a Chinese prison starting in 2003 for trying to smuggle 80 North Korean refugees out of China by boat, said that Chinese inmates repeatedly beat him and that he was injected with something that made his legs “wooden” so he could not walk without help.
Another activist, Chung Peter, said on the same TV Chosun programme that “sleep deprivation” and “letting you hear the sound of torture from the next room” were standard interrogation tactics when he was held for a year and a half starting in 2003 for helping North Korean refugees.
Kim has not said if his group was helping refugees flee, saying only that it focused on collecting information on human rights in North Korea and helping North Korean refugees living in China.