China has detained about 60 North Korean defectors and begun repatriating them back to North Korea where they could face punishment, including execution, according to South Korean sources.
The defectors fleeing the brutal rule of Kim Jong Un have been held in detention facilities in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning bordering North Korea, according to a South Korean missionary, speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.
"I believe the repatriation of North Korean defectors held in detention facilities in Liaoning province has begun recently,” the missionary told RFA’s Korean Service, adding that the 60 North Koreans were arrested in various parts of China and imprisoned in Liaoning as of last month.
The missionary, who has been involved in helping defectors for the last two decades, as well as other activist and human rights groups believe defector arrests have spiked this year following appeals by the Kim Jong Un regime to Beijing to thwart those fleeing North Korea, especially military personnel or dignitaries.
The number of arrests of North Koreans fleeing to South Korea via China has increased significantly this year, according to human rights activists and other groups involved in efforts to help those leaving the hardline communist state in search of a better life.
China, Pyongyang's oldest benefactor, considers North Korean defectors as illegal economic migrants rather than refugees or asylum seekers and forcibly returns many of them to North Korea, which runs an illicit nuclear weapons program.
North Koreans who escape the isolated state typically face harsh punishments if they are sent back, including torture, sexual violence, hard labor, imprisonment in political or re-education camps, or even execution. Often their family members are also punished.
Numbers larger than previously reported
Young-ja Kim, Director General of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), told RFA that he believes the number of North Korean defectors arrested in China so far this year was larger than that reported by the South Korean media.
South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper last month quoted an activist who helps defectors as saying that at least 39 North Koreans had been detained in Liaoning.
South Korea's Unification Ministry said 546 defectors arrived in the country in the first six months of this year, up from 487 in the same period last year, the report said.
The spike in arrests could have stemmed from increasing North Korea-China cooperation following five summits between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping in the past 16 months, after years of no such high level meetings at all.
The two countries had signed a mutual cooperation treaty in 1986 for the maintenance of security and social order along their border areas.
“It is possible that the two sides have strengthened cooperation on the issue of North Korean defectors in China in the wake of the North Korea-China security diplomacy," said Kim In-tae, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul.
Aside from the increased cooperation, China's recent introduction of a facial recognition surveillance system is also hampering plans of North Korean defectors.
“The recent situation in which surveillance equipment has been installed in many parts of China also makes it difficult for the movement of North Korean defectors," an official of a North Korea defectors’ group in South Korea, who asked not to be identified because of his safety, told RFA.
"It feels like the Chinese authorities are tightening their surveillance and control over ordinary Chinese, and the situation seems to affect the arrest of North Korean defectors.”
Reported by Yong Jae Mok for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Richard Finney.