China repatriates N Korean escapees after Asian Games: source

Most of the defectors were civilians and religious figures who were attempting to travel to the South.
By Mok Yongjae and Kim Ji Eun for RFA Korean
2023.10.12
China repatriates N Korean escapees after Asian Games: source Photo shows a repatriation bus en route to North Korea’s Sinuiju from China’s Dandong on Aug. 29. (RFA Photo/Kim Ji Eun.)
Photo: RFA

UPDATED October 16, 2023, 3:06 p.m. ET

China has repatriated more than 500 North Koreans shortly after the Hangzhou Asian Games, multiple sources working to rescue North Koreans in China told Radio Free Asia on Wednesday. 

Most of the North Koreans were civilians and religious figures who were arrested while attempting to travel to South Korea from China, the sources added. 

According to the J.M. Missionary Union, which has been working to rescue North Koreans, the repatriation took place in the Chinese cities of Tumen, Hunchun, Changbai, Dandong, and Nanping. 

Beijing and Pyongyang had previously agreed that the repatriation would take place immediately after the Asian Games, it said. 

“At around 7:30 p.m. local time on the 9th of this month, after dark, the repatriation was secretly carried out through various Chinese customs offices along the border between North Korea and China,” an official at the J.M. Missionary Union told RFA on Oct. 11, adding that the people were arrested during the COVID pandemic and kept in Chinese detention centers.

“Previously, some North Koreans were repatriated as China began repatriating North Koreans on Aug. 29. Some defectors were also sent back to the North last month on Sept. 18, just before the Asian Games,” said the official. “Following this, a large-scale repatriation of more than 500 defectors was carried out on Oct. 9.”

Peter Jung, head of Seoul-based rights NGO Justice for North Korea, also told RFA that a large number of North Koreans had been repatriated through the North Korean-Chinese border, including children, and that the repatriations had taken place simultaneously in several areas.

“Our sources told us that a North Korean defector, who was just hours away from being repatriated, called his family in China in a tearful voice, asking them to take care of his remaining children because he did not know what would happen to them if he was repatriated,” said Jung.

“North Korea had closed its borders and refused to repatriate defectors from China due to the COVID, but as both China and North Korea have relaxed their anti-COVID policies, we understand that Chinese authorities have urged North Korea to accept defectors,” he added. 

Separately, the U.S.-based civil society organization One Korea Network also said in a press release that the Chinese government secretly repatriated North Korean defectors on Monday through the cities of Tumen, Hunchun, Dandong, Nanping, and Sanjiang.

The repatriation was reportedly carried out under tight security and in secret, making it particularly noteworthy that it took place 10 days before North Korea’s party founding day on Oct. 10, and just after the end of China’s National Day holiday and the Hangzhou Asian Games.

“The detention center workers had not been informed of any information regarding the movement of the North Korean defectors in their custody,” a source in Yanji, China, told RFA on Nov. 11, citing a detention center worker. “Under these circumstances, the defectors were suddenly loaded into cars at dawn on the 9th and taken somewhere.”

Another China-based source said: “I understand that [Chinese authorities] make the North Koreans gather at night in certain places, such as Yanji, and then pick a time when the area goes quiet before sending them back to the North, while maintaining the highest possible monitoring.”

Meanwhile, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Nov. 11 that it had no confirmation on whether China repatriated North Koreans immediately after the Asian Games.

“The South Korean government is making diplomatic efforts to ensure that North Koreans living abroad are not forcibly repatriated and can safely and quickly go to their desired destinations,” the ministry said.

Translated by Taejun Kang. Edited by Elaine Chan

Update corrects the date of repatriation to Oct. 9

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