Yanji, Jilin Province, China. The largest number of North Korean defectors in the country is
thought to reside here. The city is also known to have the largest number of defector arrests.
Image: Daily NK
North Korean defectors living in northeast China continue to fear for their safety as North Korean and Chinese authorities ramp up efforts to arrest and repatriate them back to the North. Although such individuals have always been mindful of their illegal status, the past year has seen a shift in policy to a point where even the children of defectors are being forcefully repatriated to North Korea.
Daily NK has been collecting their stories since June last year and found over 120 instances of forced repatriation of North Koreans residing in areas across China’s northeast, including Shenyang in Liaoning Province, Kunming in Yunnan Province, Changbai, Tumen, and Yanji in Jilin Province, Qinhuangdao in Hebei Province, and other regions. While a considerable number of defectors have already been repatriated to North Korea, many more sit languishing in detention centers in China, awaiting their own deportation.
A portion of these arrests appear to be conducted by Chinese police along routes previously considered amongst brokers as the safest and most reliable, such as at train stations, secluded mountain paths, and even safehouses. Many are beginning to worry that these and other routes are no longer safe for North Koreans.
A source in China informed Daily NK that “unlike previously, when defectors could easily pass through these routes simply by blending in, the authorities have stepped up their surveillance and questioning, establishing more checkpoints and generally making it much more challenging. Making their way to third countries like Thailand or Laos has now become much harder than crossing the China-North Korea border itself. Brokers who make a living by aiding North Koreans in defecting to South Korea are worried now too, saying things like, ‘with the way things are going, this seed (source of income) may be drying up.'”
International human rights organizations are also sounding the alarm at the increase in arrests and forced repatriations in China. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported earlier this month that in July and August of this year alone, at least 41 North Koreans were detained on suspicion of defection. From July 2016 until this June 2017, HRW recorded 51 separate instances, bringing the total during this period to at least 92 persons, including a newborn baby, an 11 year-old child, and four elderly women.
Typically, international human rights organizations first ascertain the name, gender, age, and other information of the arrested before tallying up the number of those being forcefully repatriated, but these efforts inevitably leave out cases that go unnoticed by the international community. With no one to help get the word out about their case, those without family members residing in South Korea suffer such injustice alone.
55 year-old former broker Lee Song Il (alias), who spent 4 years guiding North Koreans out of the country until last year, spoke about the situation with Daily NK. “There were a couple of instances where I helped a person cross who did not have any family in the South at the time. Whenever news got out that a North Korean was arrested in China, typically I would want to first inform their family members in South Korea about what’s going on, but when a person has no such contacts, there’s no way to later follow up on their situation or receive other reliable details,” Lee said.
Chinese police in Dandong, Liaoning Province. Considered to be illegal migrants rather than refugees,
North Korean defectors are currently experiencing unprecedented crackdowns by Chinese
public security officers. Image: Daily NK
Facing torture and forced abortions back in North Korea, many commit suicide
Accumulating evidence supports allegations of torture, rape, and other inhumane treatment inflicted by the North Korean authorities upon an individual’s forced repatriation from China. A considerable number of defectors have testified to the now common practice of defectors carrying poison or a knife by which they plan to commit suicide if they are ever caught, to avoid the torture that awaits them back in the North. In July, there was an incident in which a North Korean was caught in Shenyang and committed suicide by drinking poison before the authorities had a chance to send him back.
According to the North’s criminal code Article 221 (revised in 2015), illegal border crossing warrants a sentence of 1 to 5 years of hard labor, where prisoners are punished depending on whether or not official judicial proceedings are carried out. However, the truth is that they are more often prosecuted under Article 63, ‘Treason against the Motherland’, bringing a minimum 5 years of hard labor, but also often without any specified sentence length at all. By deeming defectors as traitors to the state, the authorities justify indefinite detention and even the execution of defectors.
When defectors arrive back in the North, they are typically sent to some sort of police or military facility along the border, enduring anywhere from a few days to a few months of interrogation. Once the authorities decide they have accumulated a sufficient number of prisoners at the border, they are then transferred inland to face further questioning by State Security agents. For the majority, Daily NK has determined that they are sent to facilities in Hoeryeong, Musan, Onsong, Hyesan, and Sinuiju.
Prisoners are first subjected to forced cavity searches by officials at the border, ostensibly to collect money or other illegal items, but many have testified that it is done to belittle and humiliate them.
State Security agents then interrogate the prisoners, asking about their motives for defecting, the process and route taken, the names of those who assisted in the defection, and where they stayed while in China. They are widely known to subject prisoners to torture and other inhumane treatment while trying to extract such information. Numerous testimonies of instances of security agents raping female prisoners and performing forced abortions on those suspected of becoming pregnant while in China have also been reported.
The UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea released in 2014 provides details of this kind of treatment as well. “Prisoners receive extreme beatings and other violent measures at the hands of North Korean Security agents, who do not stop until they are completely satisfied with the prisoner’s confession,” the report stated, adding that “security agents enforce such inhumane conditions in order to increase pressure on the prisoners to confess.”
Through the interrogation process, prisoners may receive different sentences depending on the reasons for their defection or their whereabouts during their stay in China. If they are found to have interacted with South Koreans or church members while in China for example, they may be sent to their provincial State Security center to be immediately sentenced to imprisonment in a political prison or labor camp, without any judicial proceedings. On the other hand, those found to have defected in order to find food or work may be sent for interrogation in their own hometown, but are also then summarily sent for a shorter stint at a labor camp.
The next installment of this series will focus on human rights violations that are arising from a system of profit-seeking brokers to which North Koreans defectors have no alternative in their desperation to escape the country.