The arrests come as Chinese authorities step up security sweeps around the country amid spreading protests by Tibetans in the Tibet Autonomous Region and in Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu provinces. Analysts say the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing are pushing China to crack down on undocumented North Koreans, whose suffering will likely escalate further.
Plainclothes Chinese security agents conducted a large-scale raid March 17 on North Korean defectors in Shenyang, Liaoning province, arresting about 40 people, sources in China who spoke to RFA’s Korean service on condition of anonymity said.
Sources in China also reported that four North Korean defectors—one male and three females—were arrested March 5 as they ate in a local restaurant. Chinese border guards meanwhile arrested two North Koreans attempting to cross the Tumen River, sources said.
“North Korean defectors continue to attempt to cross the border,” Kim Myung Chul, a North Korean defector hiding in a mountainous area in China, said in an interview. “Many of them are captured in China, after they have left North Korea but especially in the border areas. Surveillance and border enforcement have been stepped up, and there are many who report the defectors to the authorities.”
Countless North Koreans fleeing poverty and oppression have crossed into China over the Tumen River. Shenyang is a four-hour train ride from the North Korean-Chinese border, and raids there are generally considered unlikely unless someone has tipped off police, residents say.
Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation in Virginia and an advocate for North Korean refugees, said she believed the stepped-up sweeps were directly related to China’s crackdown on anti-Chinese Tibetan demonstrations that have ripped through western China since March 10.
“The situation in Tibet will have an impact on North Korean refugees living in China,” Scholte said. “I believe the Chinese authorities will initiate a search for North Korean defectors in China, conducting their operations in a manner similar to what they have been doing in Tibet.”
KCTV quoted a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman condemning “the violent crimes including beating, smashing, looting, and burning, currently happening in the Tibet Autonomous Region as a plot organized, premeditated, masterminded, and incited by the Dalai Lama clique, concocted in collusion with outside separatist forces whose aim is to split China and destroy national unity.”
The official Korean Central News Agency quoted Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry as saying the regime "supports the Chinese government in its efforts to ensure social stability and the rule of law in Tibet and defend the fundamental interests of the Tibetan people."
A spokesman also “strongly denounced the unsavory elements for their moves to seek the ‘independence of Tibet’ and scuttle the coming Beijing Olympic Games… Tibet is part of the inalienable territory of China.”
Experts say the crackdown on North Koreans in China will aggravate their already escalating traumatic stress and anxiety disorders, which have been well documented by clinicians in South Korea and the West.
A new report by the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics found the overwhelming majority of North Korean defectors suffer from depression and phobic anxiety disorders, related to chronic famine and human rights abuses in North Korea and perpetual fear of arrest in China.
The report, based on surveys of more than 1,300 North Korean defectors in South Korea in 2005, said 51 percent of North Korean defectors in South Korea exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while 26 percent suffer from acute PTSD.
“There are two sources of stress that we try to emphasize,” said Stephan Haggard, co-author of the report and a professor at the University of California-San Diego.
“One is the perpetual anxiety they experienced while living in hiding in China, as illegal residents trying to evade the surveillance and crackdowns conducted by the authorities. The other is the starvation, severe human rights violations, and cruelty experienced in political prisoner camps.”
A 2001 study in the international medical journal The Lancet found defectors reported certain traumatic events in North Korea with a high frequency.
Most commonly reported were: “witnessing public executions,” followed by “hearing news of the death of a family member or relative due to starvation,” “witnessing a beating,” “witnessing a punishment for political misconduct,” and “death of a family member or relative due to illness.”
The Lancet study found PTSD symptoms in 29.5 percent of North Koreans in South Korea, compared with 56 percent found among North Koreans in China in a separate study.
Original reporting in Korean by Jungmin Noh, Sookyung Lee and Sungwon Yang. RFA Korean Service director: Kwang-Chool Lee. Translated and researched by Greg Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.