Ten North Koreans, including a four-year-old child, have been detained in China, where they face deportation, two sources with direct knowledge of the situation said.
The group was trying to defect to South Korea, but were detained by Chinese police in the northeastern city of Shenyang in Liaoning Province, said the sources, both of whom requested anonymity citing the sensitivity of the situation.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) said in a daily news briefing on Tuesday she was unaware of details of the case, adding that China consistently upholds the handling of such matters in accordance with domestic and international law and humanitarian principles.
One of the two sources said he was able to confirm the group was in Shenyang until Monday morning, “but they seem to have been transferred elsewhere since then.”
The man only wanted to be identified by his surname Lee, because his wife and four-year-old son were among the detained 10.
“I told her to call again and was waiting and hoping she would find a safe place somewhere, but she never called me back,” Lee said.
The group consisted of seven women and three men, Lee said, adding that his wife and son had met the rest of a group at a safe house in Shenyang, but lost contact with him on Saturday.
A second source confirmed the detention and said that China appeared to have intensified its crackdown on North Korean defectors in China, especially in the past two months.
The New York-based non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch said in September that it had documented the arrests of 41 North Koreans in July and August alone — compared with the 51 cases it had identified from July last year to June.
“Make no mistake: Sending them back across the border makes Beijing complicit in the torture, forced labor and, in some cases, executions that others sent back to North Korea have faced,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement about the most recent detention.
“China should release this group of 10 North Koreans and let them proceed to a third country where they can receive the protection they urgently need,” Robertson said.
China says North Korean defectors are illegal migrants who flee their country for economic reasons, and does not treat them as refugees.
North Korea calls them criminals and describes those who try to bring them to South Korea as kidnappers.
The vast majority of North Koreans who escape to China defect to South Korea where more than 31,000 of them have resettled, according to South Korean government data.
Safe passage for defectors fleeing North Korea often depends on their ability to make the grueling and at times dangerous trip across rural China without being detected.
South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Roh Kyu-deok said Seoul was “closely monitoring” the latest case.
“We’re making diplomatic efforts with related countries so that the defectors will not be forcibly repatriated,” Roh said, declining to provide details citing safety concerns and “cooperative relations” with those countries.
An official at the South Korean consulate in Shenyang said they had checked with local police regarding the whereabouts of the group, but had been unable to reach them.
Last week, Seoul and Beijing agreed to move beyond a year-long stand-off over the deployment of a US anti-missile system in South Korea — a factor which some observers worry might make Seoul more reluctant to raise the issue of deportations.
“North Korean defectors and people working in the field are worried that South Korea isn’t raising this issue with Beijing as strongly as before, as they are trying to improve relations,” the second source said.
The onset of summer has sparked a rise in incidents of “mask rage” in South Korea as more hot and bothered commuters either refuse to wear face coverings or leave parts of their faces exposed. In South Korea, Japan and other countries in East Asia, widespread mask wearing has been cited as one possible explanation for the region’s relative success in bringing the COVID-19 pandemic under control. South Korea, one of the first countries outside China to be affected by the virus, flattened the coronavirus curve in April, although it is now struggling with dozens of daily cases, mainly in and around
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