Authorities in southwestern China’s Yunnan province have arrested at least 13 North Koreans attempting to reach South Korea, media reports said Monday, as officials in Seoul said they are investigating the claims.
The group of defectors was taken into custody in the provincial capital Kunming on Friday as they attempted to board a bus that would ferry them to an unidentified Southeast Asian nation, according to reports.
Speaking at a media briefing, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesperson Kim Ui-do said that Seoul is trying to confirm reports of the arrest.
“At present, related agencies are trying to verify the claims,” Kim said, adding that it was unknown whether North Korea had requested that Beijing detain the group for repatriation or if authorities in Kunming had acted on their own without prior consultation.
Kim said that while reports suggested that some of the detainees had family members in South Korea and that they had urged Seoul to intervene, he could not confirm whether such a request had been made.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cited a North Korean human rights official in Seoul who spoke on condition of anonymity saying that of the 13 arrested, two were ethnic Koreans with Chinese citizenship who were acting as guides for the rest of the group.
Eight were part of a group being supported by a South Korean Christian mission, the report said.
Yonhap quoted an activist who said that North Koreans rarely attempt to defect in groups of more than five because “if they form larger groups to save money on guides, they become easier to detect.”
The activist said that members of the group appear to have tried to save money for hiring brokers to help them travel across the border.
A second report in South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said that a total of 15 North Koreans had been arrested in Yunnan on Friday.
South Korea has previously requested that China not forcibly repatriate North Korean nationals, who are likely to be sent to labor camps on their return home where they may face severe punishment or even execution for fleeing the country.
The majority of the estimated 25,000 North Koreans who have fled famine or repression at home to settle in the South over the past six decades have begun their journeys by crossing into China before moving on to a third country, most often in Southeast Asia.
But China—North Korea’s staunchest ally—frequently repatriates those it catches, claiming they are illegal economic migrants, rather than refugees.
Asked about the report at a regular briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said “these people … are not defectors from [North Korea], they are illegal border-crossers.”
But he said he was “not aware of the specific issue as well as the specific persons involved in the issue” when pressed over whether he was confirming that the detainees were North Koreans.
Stephen Noerper, senior vice president of Washington-based Korea Society, told RFA’s Mandarin Service that the idea of returning the detainees to North Korea was “a very horrendous one indeed” and called for international attention to the matter.
“These are individuals who are not permitted onward transit and who may well suffer, not only under Chinese authorities, but really under North Korean authorities, if they are forcefully repatriated,” he said.
“And the reports have been those of torture and maybe even death for those who are forced back into North Korea and that should certainly warrant the concern of the international community.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is believed to have tightened border controls since he took power in late 2011.
The number of refugees arriving in South Korea dropped more than 40 percent to 1,508 last year.
In May, Laos deported nine North Korean defectors to China after rejecting a plea by Seoul to send them to South Korea.
The defectors, who had fled their country to the Southeast Asian nation via China a month earlier, were all orphans in their teens and early twenties.
Reported by Songwu Park and Hee Jung Yang for RFA’s Korean Service and Nadia Usaeva for the Mandarin Service. Translated by Bong Park. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.