North Koreans who overstay their visas while visiting relatives in China became targets for arrest by the Chinese authorities one month prior to Xi Jinping’s visit to North Korea, according to sources in the region.
“The Chinese authorities began arresting North Koreans on family visit visas from mid-May,” a source in China close to North Korean affairs told Daily NK. “The North Korean authorities sent over a list of names for the Chinese authorities to locate and arrest.”
North Koreans who visit China on family visitation visas routinely return to North Korea after their visas have already expired. Most visas last for around 60 days, but because many visa holders do not return home, the situation has become a major headache for the North Korean authorities.
Their refusal to return is closely linked with North Korea’s chronic economic difficulties. North Koreans are faced with severe economic problems and many travel to China to obtain money from their relatives there. If they are unable to obtain the money they require, many end up staying long after their visa has expired.
These visa holders can legally extend their visa up to three times every one to three months upon submission of an extension application. Many North Koreans in this position, surprised with how different the outside world is compared to what is portrayed in state propaganda, then consider defecting and end up overstaying their visas.
Daily NK previously reported that the North Korean authorities have created dedicated “arrest teams” made up of Ministry of State Security (MSS) agents and deployed them to China to forcibly repatriate North Koreans who have overstayed their visas. The arrest teams may include North Korean embassy or trade agency employees who are familiar with conditions on the ground in China. There have even been reports that after Kim Jong Un came to power, agents from the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) began participating in these arrest teams.
Due to the fact that arrest teams are routinely deployed to China by the North Korean authorities, it is highly unusual for the Chinese authorities to take part in these arrests.
The Chinese authorities appear to have taken action as part of efforts to normalize the China-North Korea relationship before and after the summit.
These efforts are likely aimed at expanding Chinese influence in North Korea and providing support to the North Korean authorities who have been overwhelmed with the sheer number of visa overstays.
The arrest of North Koreans visiting their families by the Chinese authorities may be intended to establish a good “Party to Party” [Chinese Communist Party and the Workers’ Party of Korea] relationship, according to a separate source in China.
“The Chinese authorities want to say that they have helped resolve a problem facing the North Korean government,” he said.
However, the North Korean government is not likely to be too pleased that the Chinese authorities are intervening in this way.
“North Korea has long hired informants and conducted searches for defectors in China as part of efforts to arrest those who have overstayed their family visit visas,” he said.
“If the Chinese authorities take a larger role in these activities, the North Korean security services will have less influence and less reason to be in China.”