Page last updated at 06:15 GMT, Wednesday, 16 April 2008 07:15 UK

China 'must not return N Koreans'

A Chinese soldier guards a bridge in Jilin province on the border with North Korea on 8 April 2008
Tens of thousands of North Koreans are thought to have crossed to China

The US has urged China to stop repatriating North Korean refugees because of concerns over how the returnees are treated.

Those suspected of converting to Christianity or of meeting South Korean Christians face severe persecution, a report by a government commission said.

The treatment was part of Pyongyang's efforts to prevent the spread of religion, the report said.

The study was by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Entitled "A Prison Without Bars", it was based on interviews with 32 refugees and six North Korean security agents who had defected.

'Torture and prison'

According to the commission, there is a pressing need for action to address the repression of religious freedom and other human rights in North Korea.

It described the forced repatriation of refugees from China as "an issue of special concern".

Tens of thousands of North Koreans are thought to have crossed into China, propelled by hardship or persecution. China treats them as economic migrants and sends them back.

"If it is discovered that they have either converted to Christianity while in China or had contact with South Koreans - both of which are considered to be political offences - they reportedly suffer harsh interrogation, torture and ill-treatment, prolonged detention without trial and imprisonment."

Religious activity is viewed as a particular threat because it threatens the personality cult the government has built around leader Kim Jong-il and his late father, Kim Il-sung, the report said.

The commission urged the international community to put pressure on Beijing not to send the refugees back.

"Such action should begin immediately as China prepares to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing," it said.

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