Chinese raids hit North Korean defectors'
Send a link to a friend
[June 17, 2019]
By Josh Smith and Joyce Lee
SEOUL (Reuters) - A decade after leaving
her family behind to flee North Korea, the defector was overwhelmed with
excitement when she spoke to her 22-year-old son on the phone for the
first time in May after he too escaped into China.
While speaking to him again on the phone days later, however, she
listened in horror as the safe house where her son and four other North
Korean escapees were hiding was raided by Chinese authorities.
"I heard voices, someone saying 'shut up' in Chinese," said the woman,
who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her son's safety. "Then
the line was cut off, and I heard later he was caught."
The woman, now living in South Korea, said she heard rumors her son is
being held in a Chinese prison near the North Korean border, but has had
no official news of his whereabouts.
At least 30 North Korean escapees have been rounded up in a string of
raids across China since mid-April, according to family members and
It is not clear whether this is part of a larger crackdown by China, but
activists say the raids have disrupted parts of the informal network of
brokers, charities, and middlemen who have been dubbed the North Korean
"The crackdown is severe," said Y. H. Kim, chairman of the North Korea
Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea.
Most worrisome for activists is that the arrests largely occurred away
from the North Korean border – an area dubbed the "red zone" where most
escapees get caught - and included rare raids on at least two safe
"Raiding a house? I've only seen two or three times," said Kim, who left
North Korea in 1988 and has acted as a middleman for the past 15 years,
connecting donors with brokers who help defectors.
"You get caught on the way, you get caught moving. But getting caught at
a home, you can count on one hand."
The increase in arrests is likely driven by multiple factors, including
deteriorating economic conditions in North Korea and China's concern
about the potential for a big influx of refugees, said Kim Seung-eun, a
pastor at Seoul's Caleb Mission Church, which helps defectors escape.
"In the past, up to half a million North Korean defectors came to
China," Kim said, citing the period in the 1990s when famine struck
North Korea. "A lot of these arrests have to do with China wanting to
prevent this again."
Kim Jeong-cheol already lost his brother trying to escape from North
Korea, and now fears his sister will meet a similar fate after she was
caught by Chinese authorities.
"My elder brother was caught in 2005, and he went to a political prison
and was executed in North Korea," Kim told Reuters. "That's why my
sister will surely die if she goes back there. What sin is it for a man
to leave because he's hungry and about to die?"
Reuters was unable to verify the fate of Kim's brother or sister. Calls
to the North Korean embassy in Beijing were not answered.
Activist groups and lawyers seeking to help the families say there is no
sign China has deported the recently arrested North Koreans yet, and
their status is unknown.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which does not typically acknowledge
arrests of individual North Korean escapees, said it had no information
about the raids or status of detainees.
"We do not know about the situation to which you are referring," the
ministry said in a statement when asked by Reuters.
North Koreans who enter China illegally because of economic reasons are
not refugees, it added.
"They use illegal channels to enter China, breaking Chinese law and
damaging order for China’s entry and exit management," the ministry
said. "For North Koreans who illegally enter the country, China handles
them under the principled stance of domestic and international law and
South Korea's government said it tries to ensure North Korean defectors
can reach their desired destinations safely and swiftly without being
forcibly sent back to the North, but declined to provide details, citing
defectors' safety and diplomatic relations.
[to top of second column]
Photo sheets of the North Korean refugees helped by the North Korea
Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea are displayed in Seoul,
South Korea, June 11, 2019. REUTERS/Josh Smith
When another woman - who also asked to be unnamed for her family's
safety - escaped from North Korea eight years ago, she promised her
sister and mother she would work to bring them out later.
In January, however, her mother died of cancer, she said.
On her death bed, her mother wrote a message on her palm pleading
for her remaining daughter to escape North Korea.
"It will haunt me for the rest of my life that I didn't keep my
promise," said woman, who now lives in South Korea.
Her 27-year-old sister was in a group of four defectors who made it
all the way to Nanning, near the border with Vietnam, before being
"When you get there, you think you're almost home free," she said.
"You think you're safe."
INCREASE IN ARRESTS
There are no hard statistics on how many North Koreans try to leave
their country, but South Korea, where most defectors try to go, says
the number safely arriving in the South dropped after Kim Jong Un
came to power in 2011.
In 2018 about 1,137 North Korean defectors entered South Korea,
compared to 2,706 in 2011.
Observers say the drop is partly because of increased security and
crackdowns in both North Korea and China.
Over the past year, more cameras and updated guard posts have been
seen at the border, said Kang Dong-wan, who heads an official North
Korean defector resettlement organization in South Korea and often
travels to the border between China and North Korea.
"Kim Jong Un's policy itself is tightening its grip on defection,"
he said. "Such changes led to stronger crackdowns in China as well."
Under President Xi Jinping, China has also cracked down on a variety
of other activities, including illicit drugs, which are sometimes
smuggled by the same people who transport escapees, said one
activist who asked not to be named due to the sensitive work.
North Koreans who enter China illegally face numerous threats,
including from the criminal networks they often have to turn to for
Tens of thousands of women and girls trying to flee North Korea have
been pressed into prostitution, forced marriage, or cybersex
operations in China, according to a report last month by the
non-profit Korea Future Initiative.
"SMASH UP NETWORKS"
An activist at another organization that helps spirit defectors out
of North Korea said so far its network had not been affected, but
they were concerned about networks being targeted and safe houses
"That is a bit of a different level, more targeted and acting on
intelligence that they may have been sitting on to smash up
networks," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect
the organization's work.
Y. H. Kim, of the Refugees Human Rights Association, said the raids
raised concerns that Chinese authorities had infiltrated some
smuggling networks, possibly with the aid of North Korean
"I don't know about other organizations, but no one is moving in our
organization right now," he said. "Because everyone who moves is
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee. Additional reporting by Ben
Blanchard in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington. Editing by
[© 2019 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2019 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Thompson Reuters is solely responsible for this content.