China resumes forcible repatriation of defectors

Activists call on China to stop returning North Korean defectors. Image | NKIN file.

China last month returned a large number of refugees to North Korea against their will, according to news reports based on activists, brokers and family members. 

South Korea’s Yonhap News reported that around 200 escapees being held in a detention center in Jilin province were handed over to North Korean authorities on April 26. 

Radio Free Asia, meanwhile, quoted a missionary organization saying that 50 to 60 people had been sent back.

If confirmed, these forced repatriations mark the resumption of a practice that the international community and human rights organizations have pleaded with China for a long time to stop.

North Koreans who are returned after trying to escape face brutal interrogation and punishment, including imprisonment in the country’s gulag. Those found to have met with missionaries or South Koreans in China are in some cases executed.

Rights groups argue that forcibly returning refugees at the risk of such treatment violates international agreements that Beijing has ratified. Chinese authorities say the victims are illegal immigrants and deny that their rights are violated in North Korea.

The last mass repatriation from China was of 600 defectors in October 2023. 

The Radio Free Asia report quotes a missionary group saying the returned North Koreans were arrested in the cities of Tumen and Hunchun. It said others were sent back at the same time across the border from Dandong in Liaoning Province. 

Additionally, it is noted that a significant number of North Korean defectors are currently detained by Chinese authorities, awaiting repatriation.

Defectors returned to North Korea face imprisonment in kyo-hwa-so labor camps with terms often linked to the time spent abroad. For instance, a person who stayed outside the country for five years may face five years and so on. As most of the people currently being repatriated escaped before the pandemic, they are likely to be given long terms. 

Few are expected to survive the long sentences. Given the current food shortages faced by ordinary North Koreans, the plight of inmates is even more dire.

China’s repatriation policy dates back to the 1990s when there were large numbers of people escaping famine. The policy was halted during the pandemic. 

The sudden surge in repatriations follows the meeting of Zhao Leji, the third-ranking member of the Politburo, with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang to discuss a possible summit marking the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations. The two countries have designated 2024 as the “year of friendship.”

Era Seo

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