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Radio Free Asia

Fifteen Repatriated North Korean Refugees Kept Quarantined for Coronavirus in 'Dangerous' Tuberculosis Hospital

2020-02-07 -- As the coronavirus epidemic rages on in China, authorities in North Korea have quarantined a group of 15 refugees that were captured in China and repatriated with the help of Chinese police, placing them in a facility meant to isolate patients with open cases of tuberculosis, RFA has learned.

Sources say that the government has little regard for the health of the refugees, and does not care if they contract tuberculosis while under quarantine for the novel coronavirus (nCoV).

"Yesterday an acquaintance of mine who works in the medical industry told me that some North Korean refugees who were sent back from China last month were put in isolation at a tuberculosis hospital," a resident of North Hamgyong province told RFA's Korean Service Thursday.

The source said the 15 repatriated North Koreans, originally part of a group of about 20, crossed the border into China from somewhere in North Hamgyong's Musan county in early January.

"But they were arrested by the Chinese police and sent back to North Korea," said the source.

"[Their escape] caused an emergency situation where the entire military was thrown into utter confusion, since it was the beginning of the New Year," said the source.

"A team was urgently dispatched by the provincial security department under orders from the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers' Party]. They were able to catch 15 of them with the help of the Chinese police. Among them were 14 adults and one child," the source added.

According to the source the 15 were not taken first to a detention center in China, they were "immediately sent to the Security Department in Onsong county via the Namyang customs office."

The source said that official procedures for repatriated North Koreans dictate that they should be handed over to their local security department after going through a preliminary investigation in the jurisdiction where they reentered the country, in this case, Onsong county.

"But since coronavirus is a thing in China now, they were sent back to North Korea in strict secrecy and immediately handed over to Musan's security department," the source said.

"Musan cleared out a ward of the Sopungsan tuberculosis hospital and dropped the 15 repatriated refugees there," the source added.

But placing them in Sopungsan could put them at risk.

"Sopungsan tuberculosis hospital is famous because patients are sent there when they have the most dangerous types of open-case tuberculosis [including the drug-resistant Super-TB]," said the source.

"It's like the authorities don't even care if these people become infected with tuberculosis," the source said, adding that their families have been made aware of the situation.

"The State Security Department normally does not inform families of repatriated escapees when they are still under investigation. This time, however, they told family members to bring food, clothes, and firewood because they believe the new coronavirus crisis won't end any time soon," the source said.

It was this request to family members that made allowed news of the situation to go public.

"Many people know that the group who fled to China from Musan county last month were sent back to North Korea and quarantined at Sopungsan tuberculosis hospital because word got out when the State Security Department asked their family members for food and clothes," a second source, also a resident of North Hamgyong, told RFA.

"Seopungsan tuberculosis hospital is where terminal TB patients go to die. They are put there to prevent the spread of the highly-contagious tuberculosis bacteria," the second source said.

According to the World Health Organization's 2019 Global Tuberculosis Report, in 2018 there were 131,000 cases of tuberculosis in North Korea. The country had an estimated TB case fatality ratio of 16%.

North Korea has not reported a single confirmed case of nCoV as of Friday.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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