A group of North Korean defectors held by China on the Laos border is released rather than repatriated, Sky News understands.
Sensitive negotiations are ongoing to secure defectors’ safety
A group of North Koreans defectors have been detained on the Chinese border with Laos in the latest crackdown by Chinese authorities who repatriate North Koreans found illegally in China.
But in a rare and encouraging sign of a Chinese policy shift, Sky News understands that the group have not been returned to North Korea.
The 10 men and women, in their 20s and 30s, and one four-year-old child, were detained along the border between Laos and China’s Yunnan Province.
Sky News has spoken to the organisation responsible for facilitating their escape from North Korea.
According to a source within the organisation, the group left North Korea’s Ryanggang Province at the end of July. They crossed the country’s northern border with China and then used well-established smuggling routes to travel south for thousands of miles.
They travelled first to Qingdao in China’s Shandong Province before moving south to Kunming in Yunnan Province. The group boarded a minibus bound for the border with Laos. Chinese military detained them as they were trying to cross by foot on August 12.
News that this group’s bid to escape had failed came only when some of them managed to send text messages to relatives who had already escaped to South Korea.
Hundreds of North Koreans escape every year searching for asylum and a better life in South Korea. The only viable way out of their country is through China. The border between North and South Korea is closed and heavily fortified.
The escape takes defectors across the northern border with China and then down to southeast Asia. Their goal is the South Korean embassy in Vietnam, Laos or Thailand where they will be offered the chance to apply for asylum.
However, China has a close relationship with North Korea. Under an agreement between the two countries, any North Koreans found to be in China illegally are automatically repatriated. Because defection from North Korea is illegal, any escapees send back face detention in a labour camp and possible execution.
In February, a United Nations report into North Korea’s human rights record made specific mention of China’s repatriation policy towards defectors.
The UN body called for China to change the policy, saying that “persons who are forcibly repatriated from China are commonly subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, summary execution and other forms of sexual violence”.
Recent strains in the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang have prompted hopes that China’s North Korea policy would be relaxed. However indications suggest that a growing number are being caught and forcibly returned to North Korea.
“We were surprised with the tighter security. We are now not sure what to do,” one activist told Sky News. “Before, the Chinese turned a blind eye to the defectors.”
But Sky News has been told that South Korean and Chinese diplomats have been communicating both about the broad repatriation issue and also about this specific case.
Because of ‘extremely sensitive’ security and diplomatic reasons, South Korean officials would not comment publicly on the current status or whereabouts of the 10 adults and one child.
But Sky News understands that tentative negotiations with the Chinese have been positive.
“We would do all we can do to help [the defectors] but details cannot be shared due to security issues,” a consular official at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing told Sky News
:: Watch a special programme on the plight of North Korean defectors here.
Koo Jun Hoe | 2014-08-13 11:32
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11 North Koreans, detained by Chinese border control units near the border of Laos, are in grave danger of repatriation, YTN reported on August 12th.
The group consists of mostly those in their 20s and 30s, including one 4 year-old child. They escaped from Bocheon, Yangkang Province to Tsiingtao, Shandong Province on August 7th, and made their way to Kunming,Yunnan Province on August 10th. At 11 A.M. the following day, they boarded a bus headed to Laos but were caught by Chinese border guards at a checkpoint on the morning of August 12th.
One member of the group managed to send a covert text message to a North Korean acquaintance already settled in the South, explaining that they had been apprehended.
The group is being held at an undisclosed location with no verifiable details as to whether they are in the custody of Chinese public security forces or local police. However, the group’s ultimate destination being South Korea, the probability of repatriation is high.
Experts have urged diplomatic efforts be made on the defectors’ behalf as soon as possible, citing the severe punishments the groups faces if repatriated.
This incident closely follows the recent repatriation of 20 North Koreans caught in the Shandong and Yunnan Provinces of China, thought to have occurred at the beginning on August. The end of July saw another group repatriation, that time a group of 11 people, caught in Yanji and the nearby border town of Tumen.