December 24, 2018 10:08
The government has granted asylum to a Chinese man who is credited with helping hundreds of North Koreans escape through China to Southeast Asia.
The Justice Ministry said Sunday it granted refugee status to Tu Airong (55). Tu told the Chosun Ilbo, "It makes me happy that my efforts to help defectors escape from the hellish conditions of North Korea and seek refuge have been recognized."
He had been helping North Koreans since 2004 through his business, which imports furniture from Laos. "I was asked by an ethnic Korean friend to take somebody to Laos and ended up guiding around six people there. I found out only later that they were North Koreans."
Born in Jiangxi Province in 1963, Tu dreamed of moving to a wealthy city like Hong Kong to earn money but instead found work in southern China and Southeast Asia. He has brought around 400 North Koreans to safety in Thailand and 100 to Laos.
Defectors rely on such brokers to guide them through China avoiding the authorities. Tu was paid by South Korean activists and evangelical churches. He was paid US$500 for each North Korean defector he smuggled to Laos and $1,000 for each one he brought to Thailand.
"Most of the money went on transporting defectors from a safe house in China to Southeast Asia and also to pay people off at the border." But he also admitted to supporting his family and paying his rent with the money. "He started helping defectors to support himself, but he seems to have discovered later that it was his calling," an acquaintance said.
Tu was arrested by Chinese police in August 2008 for aiding North Korean defectors. According to documents he submitted to a Korean court, he was given a five-year suspended sentence and monitored by police, forcing him to go into hiding in Southeast Asia.
He obtained Laotian citizenship in 2012. When he continued helping North Korean defectors escape, Tu received a call from the Chinese Embassy in Laos in 2016 advising him to confess his crime in exchange for a reduced sentence.
"The Laotian government, which is close to China, could have handed me over to Chinese authorities," Tu said. A month later, he flew to Jeju Island and applied for asylum. The Justice Ministry initially turned down his request since he had a Laotian passport and South Korean authorities felt he was at little risk of being persecuted by the Chinese government.
The fact that he was paid for being a broker for defectors also made South Korean officials suspicious. "The most difficult part of the process was being repeatedly questioned by a Justice Ministry official if I had helped North Korean defectors just for money," Tu said.
When his application was turned down, Tu filed a lawsuit in April 2017. In December that year, the Jeju District Court sided with Tu, and an appeals court did too in May this year. That prompted the Justice Ministry to recognize him as a refugee and give him an F-2 visa, which enables him to benefit from all of the rights enjoyed by South Koreans except voting.
Tu's lawyer Kim Se-jin said, "The court did not accept the Justice Ministry's view that he is not a refugee if he received money to help defectors."
Tu's wife and four children also came to South Korea this year and applied for asylum. He now works on a construction site.
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