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FILE PHOTO: The national flag of the People's Republic of China. (Daily NK)

Chinese police are piling more and more pressure on North Korean defectors in China. The police are even warning that defectors could be sent back to North Korea, which has increased fears of forced repatriation among the defector community. 

“The police have recently been threatening defectors that they could be repatriated unless they keep a low profile. This intimidation is especially severe for defectors who have previously been arrested and jailed for attempting to defect to South Korea. The police remind such defectors that they’re being watched,” a source in China told Daily NK on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

According to the source, Chinese police intimidation got worse last month. Prior to that, the police had generally advised defectors to stick to their homes and not draw attention to themselves. But in May, the warnings have been growing more direct and overt.

A defector living in China’s Jilin Province gave the following account. “Perhaps because I was arrested and released twice while trying to reach South Korea during the pandemic, I face a much higher level of surveillance and management than other defectors. Since last month, not only police in the rural area where I live but even city police have been asking me to come in. They tell me I should thank my lucky stars I haven’t been repatriated and warn me that if I’m caught making trouble or trying to defect to the South, I may well be repatriated.”

“For defectors such as myself, the very word ‘repatriation’ arouses fear. I feel so scared when the police threaten me with repatriation. If I’m caught doing anything now, I’m sure to be sent back to the North. It’s agonizing to think that I’ll always be in danger here [in China] even if I settle down,” the defector said.

Defectors always face threat of repatriation

North Korean defectors in China are always at risk of being repatriated because China regards them not as refugees, but as illegal aliens.

The international community and North Korean human rights groups both in South Korea and elsewhere have called on the Chinese government to provide North Korean defectors with humanitarian treatment and protection under the U.N. Refugee Convention, but the Chinese government continues to repatriate defectors on grounds of national security and immigration controls.

As a consequence, many defectors in China look into ways to reach South Korea and other countries and even seize opportunities that arise despite the risks entailed.

Following a spate of repatriations last year, North Korean defectors in China have come under more rigorous surveillance and management by the Chinese police. Defectors are now terrified of even trying to reach South Korea, a journey that has little chance of success.

“Defectors in China have always had to deal with anxiety over their safety, but that anxiety has been increasing because of how overt the police have been recently in their warnings about repatriation. Given the police’s current behavior, defectors feel like the walls are closing in. They feel like the police could try to have them repatriated at the slightest irritation,” the source said.

“Under these circumstances, defectors who had meant to settle in China instead of going to South Korea have now changed their mind and want to go to South Korea again. But since more of those attempts end up in arrest and potential repatriation than in success, defectors are increasingly afraid of even making the attempt,” he added.

Daily NK works with a network of sources living in North Korea, China, and elsewhere. Their identities remain anonymous for security reasons. For more information about Daily NK’s network of reporting partners and information-gathering activities, please visit our FAQ page here.

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