Hundreds of North Korean Defectors Repatriated by China Face Miserable Fate

Screenshot of Hyeonseo Lee’s 2013 TED Talk about her escape from North Korea. She discusses many challenges North Korean defectors face in China, including imprisonment and repatriation to North Korea.

SEOUL – Right after the 2023 Hangzhou Asian Games drew to a close, on October 9, 2023,  as if it were a military operation, the Chinese government made an apparently calculated decision to secretly repatriate approximately 600 North Korean detainees in China to North Korea, according to Joo Ok-kyung of Light of Freedom, a defectors rescue group. 

Radio Free Asia’s sources added that most of the North Koreans were civilians and religious figures who were arrested while attempting to travel to South Korea from China.

That marked China’s first large-scale repatriation of North Korean defectors since Pyongyang reopened its borders after about three and a half years of COVID-19 lockdowns. 

The South Korean government had appealed to China about the fate of the defectors and subsequently protested their forced repatriation, but China denies the existence of any “so-called defectors” in the country, labeling them illegal economic migrants instead of refugees fleeing the North Korean regime’s human rights abuses.

Several sources who requested anonymity confirmed to NK Insider that the repatriated North Korean defectors initially completed a 15-day COVID-19 medical examination at an infectious disease quarantine facility in the repatriated region.

They were subsequently transferred to the Ministry of State Security in their respective regions of residence, where they underwent a 10-15 day classification pretrial period and interrogation process that determines which crimes North Korean defectors will be charged with. 

During this period, a final decision was made about whether the defector would be sentenced to life imprisonment as a political prisoner or non-life imprisonment as an economic prisoner. 

It’s a period of life and death known in North Korea as the “Hell Trial Period.”  

After the “Hell Trials” of the repatriated North Koreans were completed in recent months, interrogations and investigations by their corresponding agencies were conducted by the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Social Security.

North Korea’s Ministry of State Security is a notorious agency that investigates “anti-state crimes” and convicts the alleged offenders under the “Anti-State and Anti-National Crimes” section of Chapter 3 of the Criminal Law of the DPRK, resulting in permanent confinement in political prison camps. 

North Korean defectors who attempted to escape to South Korea, practiced their religion, or interacted with South Koreans are handled by the Ministry of State Security for violations of Article 3 of the Criminal Law, the Reactionary Ideology and Culture Rejection Law, and the National Secret Protection Law.

Defectors who entered China as “illegal immigrants” and were sold to Han Chinese buyers, human traffickers, or other illegal businesses are handled by the Ministry of Social Security.

According to testimony from fellow North Korean defectors, the interrogation process is often used to obtain confessions to crimes that have already been determined and to complete legal documents.

The defectors further claim that the most severe torture, assault, and other human rights abuses are committed during this period, and some have died from the mental and physical pain of the interrogation process, while others have been forced to make false confessions.

Repatriated North Korean defectors are detained in groups of 10 to 30 people in the detention centers of their respective agencies, assigned an investigator, and subjected to an interrogation process that can take months to years. 

The Department of State Security at each county and district level designates agents from the Anti-Espionage and Investigation Sections to carry out these investigations. Additionally, the Department of Social Security at the county and district-levels assigns its officers to deal with these matters.

North Korean defectors under the purview of the Ministry of State Security are transferred to pretrial detention centers in their respective provinces after the interrogation process, where they undergo a final review process by the prosecutor of the Central People’s Procuratorate, then a closed trial by the Provincial People’s Court, followed by a transfer to a political prison camp. 

On the other hand, most of the Ministry of Social Security’s detainees are subjected to a final review by the Provincial Department of Social Security, sentenced in an open or closed trial, and sent to an economic criminal internment camp.

As of January 15, 2024, more than 30 percent of the approximately 600 North Koreans who were forcefully repatriated in October 2023 are under the purview of the Ministry of State Security and are being interrogated on suspicion of anti-state crimes, according to interviews by NK Insider of family members and sources connected to the defectors in South Korea. 

Now, just months after China repatriated them last October, hundreds of North Koreans are in imminent danger of vanishing forever because they longed for freedom in South Korea.

Families of North Korean detainees and North Korean defectors who have experienced forced repatriations have repeatedly denounced the human rights abuses by the North Korean regime’s Ministry of State Security and Ministry of Social Security, as well as the Chinese government’s abetment of repatriation. 

North Korean defectors and human rights activists continue to urge the international community to take a stronger stand against the dire threats faced by North Koreans longing for freedom, and condemn the Chinese government for facilitating human rights violations by the North Korean regime.

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