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Business News/ Politics / China Appears to Have Repatriated North Koreans Despite International Pressure
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China Appears to Have Repatriated North Koreans Despite International Pressure

wsj

Hundreds are believed to have been forcibly sent back to the Kim Jong Un regime, where they likely face imprisonment and abuse, experts say.

The North Korean town of Sinuiju, as seen from the Chinese border city of Dandong. Premium
The North Korean town of Sinuiju, as seen from the Chinese border city of Dandong.

SEOUL—China appeared to have repatriated a large number of North Koreans this week, despite international pressure given the harsh punishment the returnees likely face back in the Kim Jong Un regime.

Fleeing North Korea is punishable by hard labor, imprisonment in re-education camps or even execution.

Earlier this week, civic and human-rights groups, citing contacts inside China, claimed roughly 500 to 600 imprisoned North Koreans were forcibly sent back to their home country. On Friday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said many North Koreans appeared to have been repatriated from three northeastern Chinese provinces but couldn’t confirm how many.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, asked about the repatriation claims at a Thursday briefing, said there were no North Korean defectors in China, according to Reuters. He added that Beijing has always handled individuals who had illegally entered China according to international law and humanitarianism.

North Korea had sealed off its borders over Covid-19 fears, blocking even its own citizens from returning. But the Kim regime officially reopened in August after having isolated itself for more than 3½ years.

That triggered concern from the U.S., South Korea, the United Nations and human-rights groups, which asked China to refrain from repatriating North Koreans. Roughly 10,000 North Koreans might be hiding in China, according to South Korean government estimates. Some 1,500 of them are believed to be imprisoned after getting caught by Chinese authorities, the U.N. says.

Ties between Beijing and Pyongyang have blossomed in recent years, with the two Communist nations pledging deeper coordination and sharing their dissatisfaction with the U.S. and its allies. In the past, when the two countries’ relations were frayed, China sometimes deported North Koreans to third countries or turned a blind eye as escapees sought refuge elsewhere, according to Yang Moo-jin, a former South Korean Unification Ministry official.

“Currently China has no intention of prioritizing a North Korean defector’s free will over the two countries’ border control laws," said Yang, who is now the president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

More than 8,000 North Koreans have been repatriated in the past, with 98% of the cases sent from China, according to the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights. In contrast, some 34,000 North Koreans have relocated to South Korea in recent decades.

President Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol have focused on pressuring North Korea on its human-rights violations, a shift from predecessors who kept quieter on the issues as diplomatic talks unfolded with the Kim regime. Both countries in the past year or so have named North Korean human-rights envoys, positions that had remained vacant since 2017. The U.S. envoy, Julie Turner, was confirmed by the Senate in July, though has yet to be sworn into office.

Since taking power in 2011, Kim, the 39-year-old dictator, has cracked down harder than his father or grandfather did on those seeking to flee North Korea. He tightened border controls even before the pandemic and strengthened punishment for illegal border crossings.

The number of escapees annually who have relocated to South Korea has dwindled to the dozens in recent years. Before the pandemic, the total typically hit 1,000 or more a year.

Beijing’s increasing use of facial-recognition technology has suppressed the outflow of North Koreans, by making it extremely difficult for them to avoid being identified and repatriated, said Hanna Song, director of international cooperation at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, during a U.S. congressional hearing in July.

China’s foremost request to the Kim regime has been returning North Koreans that Beijing considers to be criminals, ever since the two countries resumed some railway trade earlier this year, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in August. The Covid-19 border closures by both countries had meant the North Koreans couldn’t be sent back as soon as they were caught, said Hwang Ji-hwan, a professor of international relations at the University of Seoul.

“Even if the Yoon administration has been emphasizing North Korea’s human rights violations more, it won’t change China’s stance especially when Beijing’s relations with Washington and Seoul aren’t so good," Hwang said.

The North Koreans suspected to have been sent back recently include children and were from several Chinese border cities, including Dandong and Tumen, said Peter Jung, the director of Justice for North Korea, the group that first publicized the repatriations early this week.

Separately, Human Rights Watch, citing a South Korean underground missionary with contacts in China and North Korea, said more than 500 North Koreans who were mostly women had been forcibly returned this week. Around 120 North Koreans had been repatriated in August and September, according to the group.

“The forced repatriations will lead to torture and incarceration of North Koreans and those who came in close contact with Christianity or foreign culture and ideology are expected to be executed or sent to prison camps," said Jung, whose group is a nonprofit humanitarian organization.

Write to Dasl Yoon at dasl.yoon@wsj.com

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