Chinese police hunt escaped North Korean convict

BEIJING (AFP) - Police in northeast China are offering a US$23,000 (S$31,000) bounty for the recapture of a North Korean prisoner who staged a daring escape from his Chinese jail earlier this week and hasn't been seen since.

The fugitive escaped the facility in Jilin city on Monday by scaling a shed and vaulting the outer wall, according to dramatic surveillance footage posted online by state media.

The 39-year-old prisoner, identified by the Chinese name Zhu Xianjian, was jailed in China after fleeing reclusive North Korea.

Zhu was convicted of illegal entry into China, larceny and robbery, and was due for release and deportation back to the North in 2023, prompting online speculation that he broke out to avoid being sent back.

Human Rights Watch said in a July report that at least 1,100 North Koreans are detained in China, Pyongyang's main ally and economic benefactor.

Many face deportation back to their home country upon release, where they may suffer torture and other rights violations, according to the NGO.

Zhu illegally crossed a river separating North Korea from China in 2013. He then raided several houses in a nearby village, stealing money, mobile phones and clothes, court records show.

He also stabbed an elderly woman who discovered him and tried to flee in a taxi before being arrested by police.

Police notices describe him as 1.6 metres tall with an oval-shaped face and shabby clothes and offer up to US$23,000 for information leading to an arrest.

An accompanying photograph shows a man with a shaved head in grey prison overalls.

The manhunt has drawn widespread attention on Chinese social media, where hashtags about the incident have been viewed 20 million times.

"Let's allow him to stay in prison once he's caught. Otherwise he'll have to go home," one wrote.

Justin Hastings, professor at the University of Sydney, told AFP that Zhu's "substantive crimes" in China could increase his chances of severe punishment if forced to return to North Korea.

Experts agreed his criminal record could also dampen any prospective welcome should he make it to democratic South Korea, where most defectors end up.

Christopher Green of the International Crisis Group told AFP it is "difficult and expensive" for North Korean refugees to transit across China, and unlikely Zhu has "ample resources or networks to undertake that task."

"He is more likely to go to ground in China, at least in the short term," Green said.

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