Illegal migrants from North Korea hiding in northeastern China fear immediate and violent reprisals if they are repatriated, according to missionaries working with the community.
Despite ever-tightening border controls in recent years, an unknown number of North Koreans still manage to live, study, and work on the Chinese side of the border, mostly in Liaoning province.
Pastors and missionaries offering outreach services to the migrants say they run an enormous risk living in China, because repatriation could result in immediate torture and death at the hands of guards on the other side of the bridge.
Authorities on both sides have stepped up physical barriers and electronic monitoring of the border area in recent years, while the ruling Chinese Communist Party relies on an army of citizens with red armbands to keep tabs on illegal immigrants and report them to the authorities.
A missionary who identified himself as Paul Zhang said repatriated migrants are regarded as disloyal to the North Korean regime.
"Anyone who leaves the country by stealth is considered a traitor," Zhang told RFA.
Zhang said there are tales of the brutality affecting the Chinese border guards, some of whom are believed to have resigned in protest over the issue.
Escape more difficult now
Escaping capture in China is also much harder than it used to be for North Korean illegal immigrants, Zhang said.
"There are people wearing red armbands everywhere in the villages near the border," he said. "There is nowhere left to hide, because there are surveillance cameras and red armbands in every village in China, and they know when someone enters the village."
"All of the refugees who arrived in China during the last year or so have been sent back by the Chinese authorities," Zhang said. "
A Christian surnamed Li who is linked to a church in the border city of Dandong said Zhang's account is consistent with what he has heard from North Koreans.
"My friends there say that any [North Koreans] who are caught are repatriated," Li said. "They have the hook in their collarbone before they've even crossed the bridge."
"Being caught is a death sentence for them ... that's the situation right now," he said.
Zhang said there is a North Korean child in a Dandong church who was adopted after both parents were caught by the authorities.
"When I visited Dandong Church, there were children there left behind [by migrants]," he said. "Some of them had seen their fathers beaten to death in front of them while they were crossing the border."
"They escaped with their mothers but then their mothers were ... discovered by the Chinese police and sent back, so the church adopted them," he said.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a January 2020 report: "The North Korean government uses prison camps, torture, forced labor, and threats of execution and arbitrary punishment to maintain fearful obedience among the population, while restricting North Koreans from travel out of the country and communication with the outside world."
The government tries to prevent North Koreans from leaving without permission by jamming Chinese mobile phone services at the border, targeting for arrest those communicating with people outside the country or trying to leave, and publicizing punishments of people caught escaping, the report said.
It said those caught trying to cross the border, or forcibly returned by China, face interrogation, torture, and imprisonment in forced labor camps.
Zhang said there is a hidden network of missionaries who lend aid to North Koreans in China, but they are sworn to secrecy so as to protect the refugees they are helping.
"This means that if you're not a part of this operation ... you can't know the inside story," he said. "We only find things out when they have already happened, but we basically have no way of knowing what will happen."
Many of the organizations offering shelter to North Koreans in China are churches founded or funded in South Korea and the United States. Defectors who escape are mostly sent to South Korea.
"They have caught South Koreans before," Zhang said. "Some were sentenced in China and some were sent to North Korea. If they are Americans, they are sentenced in China."
"Anyone sent to North Korea will get a harsher punishment, and sometimes get used to make political deals with South Korea and the U.S., to [release them] in exchange for something."
A Chinese lawyer surnamed Li said the risks of any work involving North Koreans are extremely high.
"Without a high level of security, it is very easy to get arrested," he said. "Once you are caught, you can be punished for espionage."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.