A Daily NK source said on Tuesday that North Korea has continued to reject notifications from the Chinese public security bureau stating they intend to repatriate North Korean defectors.

“Early this month, about 20 female North Korean defectors were caught and detained at a lockup for illegal border crossers run jointly by the Chinese public security bureau and Chinese border patrol in Dandong, Liaoning Province,” the source, who is based in China, told Daily NK. “Public security bureau officials were going to repatriate them to the North, but the North Korean side has long refused to accept them, saying the country cannot take them back.”

According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, another 200 defectors were going to be sent back to the North early this month from Jilin Province, but the North refused to accept them. They are likely being held in a border detention center run by public security bureau authorities and the border patrol in the Chinese border town of Tumen. 

The source said North Korea is refusing to take the defectors back because the country has been busy with preparing events to celebrate Party Foundation Day and because Pyongyang has sealed the border as part of its quarantine efforts against COVID-19.

North Korea has blocked most trade and human traffic across the border since January of this year out of fears that those infected with COVID-19 could destroy the country’s fragile public health infrastructure. North Korean authorities have also refused to accept defectors who were scheduled to be repatriated by China out of concerns centering on COVID-19. 

North Korea refused a Chinese repatriation request in February for about 20 North Korean defectors detained at a prison in Dandong.

female defectors
Hundreds of North Korean women seen carrying bags through them northeast Chinese city of Helong. / Image: Daily NK

If North Korea continues to refuse repatriations, there is the possibility that China may ease its crackdown on defectors due to the limited holding capacity of Chinese detainment facilities.

“It’s the position of Chinese public security bureau officials that they will wait until Oct. 18 for a North Korean response, and if North Korea sticks to its policy that it cannot take people back, they will discuss what to do,” the source said. “This means Chinese public security bureau authorities are considering their own ways to deal with the situation in the belief that North Korea’s refusal to accept repatriations may not end anytime soon.”

Meanwhile, rather than go after any and all North Korean defectors in the country, Chinese authorities have demonstrated a tendency to prioritize the arrests of North Korean defectors without “fixed residences” because they worry such people will cause “social issues,” according to the source. 

“The people arrested this time were mostly wandering around after running away from residential districts or were those who had been working illegally in restaurants and bars,” the source said. “Many defectors who hadn’t registered where they live with local police posts were caught, too.”

According to him, women who registered their personal information at local police posts were not targeted by this recent crackdown. “Defectors who participated in this year’s registration drive and were living quietly with Chinese partners were not arrested,” he added. 

“Defectors who registered but who continued to communicate by phone with those in North Korea or who were judged a flight risk from where they live were targeted for the crackdown,” the source further reported, adding, “People judged liable to commit crimes in China were among those arrested.”

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