Concern About Fate of 50 North Korean Escapees Sent Home by China
2021-07-19 - China has repatriated about 50 North Korean escapees, including air force pilots and others who could face severe punishment including the death penalty, sources on the Chinese side of the border told RFA.
The first such repatriations since Beijing and Pyongyang closed their borders in January 2020 at the start of the pandemic took place on July 14 at the northwestern border city of Sinuiju, across the Yalu River border from China's Dandong, a source in the city told RFA.
Most North Korean escapees have a goal of reaching South Korea, but arrivals in the South are at an all-time low due to the pandemic. Not only is it difficult for North Koreans to cross over into China, once there, making their way to a third country has also gotten more difficult.
The inability to find a way out of China has resulted in effectively stranding the North Korean escapees in a country that routinely repatriates them to North Korea. The group of escapees sent back to North Korea last week had been awaiting their fate at a prison about 400 kilometers (250 miles) away in Shenyang, some for as long as two years.
"The Dandong customs office was opened just for today and they sent about 50 North Korean escapees back to North Korea on two buses," the source, a Chinese citizen of Korean descent, said last week.
"This morning dozens of police officers lined up in front of the customs office to block public access and ensure nobody was filming the repatriation," said the source.
"There are 50 men and women in total, including North Korean soldiers and pilots who served in the air force. Among them is also a woman in her 30s who made heaps of money in Hebei province," said the source.
"She was said to be very rich, but her neighbors ratted her out," the source said.
Chinese onlookers who witnessed the repatriation expressed sympathy toward the returning escapees, according to another Chinese citizen of Korean descent in Dandong.
"They said 'If they leave, they will die. It is horrible that after escaping their country to survive, they are going to be executed young.' The witnesses even showed hostility toward the police, who are essentially sending them off to die," said the second source.
The temporary opening to receive the group of escapees came after Pyongyang had denied several requests by Beijing to restart repatriations.
"Their repatriation to North Korea has been delayed for a year or two. The escapees were held in a prison in Shenyang and sent back together as a group all at once at this time," said the first source.
The second source said "Chinese authorities had planned to repatriate the escapees several times since April, but they were unable to because North Korea refused to accept them, citing coronavirus quarantine measures."
There are many more North Korean escapees in the Shenyang area, and the 50 that were not the only ones in Chinese custody, according to the first source.
"I understand there are more North Korean escapees still at Shenyang prison," the first Dandong source said.
"There are also women who escaped from North Korea and lived quietly in hiding with Chinese husbands. They are usually released immediately, but the ones who have conflicts with local residents or other problems are arrested and imprisoned," the source added.
Among the 50 sent back through Sinuiju are "North Koreans who escaped after the coronavirus pandemic started," the second source said.
"So it will be difficult for them to avoid severe punishment when they get back to North Korea," said the second source.
"The group of escapees includes a woman who married a Chinese man, gave birth to his son, and had a wealthy lifestyle," said the second source.
"This is the second time that this woman, whose son has turned 12 now, has been repatriated. Because her life is in peril, her Chinese husband offered a large bribe to save his wife, but she was sent back anyway," the second source said.
North Korean authorities also sent 90 long-term residents of Chinese citizenship to cross the border into China on the empty buses sent to receive the North Korean escapees, the first source said. Chinese citizens who have been living in North Korea for generations are allowed relatively free travel to China.
During a news briefing Monday, South Korea's Ministry of Unification said it could not confirm reports of the forced repatriation.
"The Government has made various efforts to protect and support North Korean defectors abroad. However, there is nothing that the ministry can confirm regarding the issue," said Lee Jong Joo, a ministry spokesperson.
Beijing claims it must return North Koreans found to be illegally within Chinese territory as it is bound by two agreements it has signed with Pyongyang, the 1960 PRC-DPRK Escaped Criminals Reciprocal Extradition Treaty and the 1986 Mutual Cooperation Protocol for the Work of Maintaining National Security and Social Order and the Border Areas.
Rights groups however say that forced repatriation is a violation of China's responsibility to protect the escapees under the Refugee Convention.
More than 33,000 North Koreans have successfully made their way to South Korea in the past several decades, but the number of escapees entering South Korea sharply decreased from 1,047 in 2019 to only 229 in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Ministry of Unification statistics.
The ministry announced on Friday that in the second quarter of 2021, only two escapees entered South Korea, the lowest ever in any quarter since it began compiling quarterly data in 2003.
In the first quarter of 2020, at the start of the pandemic, 135 escapees reached South Korea, but only 12 arrived in the second quarter. Quarterly totals increased to 48, then decreased to 34, then 31 over the next three quarters before dropping off to only two in the April to June period this year.
Cheong Gwang-il, the president of NoChain, a South Korea-based North Korea human rights group, told RFA that the Sino-Korean border closure, along with increased border security in Southeast Asia has caused less activity among brokers who assist North Koreans take the China-Southeast Asia route to escape get to South Korea.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Jinha Shin. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
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