North Korean defector who escaped Chinese prison caught after 40-day manhunt

Zhu Xianjian had been on the run for several weeks – JILIN Police

A North Korean defector who was on the run for 40 days after staging an audacious escape by vaulting the electric fence of a Chinese jail has been captured.

The 39-year-old man, who was identified by his Chinese name, Zhu Xianjian, was found after a national manhunt fuelled by a huge £82,000 bounty on his head and widespread interest on social media.

Videos showing his rearrest on Sunday morning shared by state-run Beijing News showed an emaciated-looking man being carried by several officers, plus a photograph of him lying on the ground with his hands behind his back.

Mr Zhu had been in prison since 2013, when he fled reclusive North Korea and crossed a river to enter China, Pyongyang's main trading partner.

Beijing views defectors as illegal migrants, even when they are fleeing the North’s dictatorial regime.

He was convicted of illegal entry into China, as well as theft for raiding several houses in a border village to steal a mobile phone, money and clothes. He also reportedly stabbed an elderly woman who discovered him.

A Chinese tourist looking out over the Yalu River between North Korea and China – NICOLAS ASFOURI /AFP

State television footage showed how on Oct 18, Mr Zhu scaled a shed at the prison in Jilin city, northeast China, climbing on to its roof to jump over the prison’s outer fence in his bid for freedom. It also showed prison guards trying to give chase.

When his prison sentence ends in 2023, Mr Zhu was due to be deported back to North Korea – a practice condemned by human rights organisations – prompting speculation that he was trying to avoid returning and facing further incarceration and potentially torture or even execution.

The perilous path through China to South Korea is the most common route taken by would-be defectors, putting them at the mercy of cutthroat human traffickers and Chinese criminal gangs, who exploit their fear of being arrested and deported.

At least 1,100 North Koreans are detained in China, Human Rights Watch said in a report in July.

North Korean women and girls are at particular risk from sexual exploitation in brothels or being forced into abusive marriages with local men.

In 2019, a report by the London-based Korea Future Initiative, interviewing multiple female trafficking survivors, revealed how vulnerable women and girls as young as 12 were being tricked into escaping North Korea, only to be sold as sex slaves in China.

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