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Some of the more than 200 defectors repatriated from China to North Korea last year are being held in political prison camps. Among the 200 defectors, all those who tried to reach South Korea or interacted with Christians while in China were sent to the camps without exception.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source in North Korea told Daily NK on Monday that ten of the defectors who were forcibly repatriated last October were sent to political prison camps after three months of intense interrogation about their defection and behavior in China. The defectors were interrogated at centers run by state security departments in Sinuiju and Onsong County.

The authorities found that the ten defectors had either contacted Christian groups in China, provided information about North Korea to other countries (such as South Korea or the U.S.), or attempted to go to South Korea.

In particular, defectors were automatically sent to the camps if there was any evidence that they had read the Bible or heard Christian doctrine. Any North Korean who comes into contact with Christianity, even once, risks being sent to a political prison camp, which is tantamount to a life sentence.

According to the 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom released by the U.S. State Department last year, an estimated 50,000-70,000 North Koreans are in political prison camps simply for being Christians.

North Korean state security departments base their interrogations of repatriated defectors on case files provided by the Chinese police. If the case files mention anything related to religion, the defectors cannot avoid being sentenced to the camps, no matter what excuses or explanations they offer, the source explained.

These defectors are detained in a number of political prison camps, some under the control of the Ministry of State Security and others under the control of the Ministry of Social Security. Those in the Ministry of State Security camps have little chance of ever being released, while those in the Ministry of Social Security camps have a slim chance of eventual release.

While most of the other repatriated defectors were sentenced to prison and are currently serving time, some have been released after serving reduced sentences.

“So far, six people have been released after serving their sentences. The testimony of these defectors was consistent with the initial case files prepared by the Chinese police. In addition to never having any contact with Christians or South Koreans and never trying to go to South Korea, they were only detained in China for petty crimes or surrendered to the Chinese police for the purpose of returning home,” the source explained.

The North Korean authorities apparently reduced the prison sentences of repatriated defectors who had not committed serious crimes by three years – the period during which the national border was closed due to the pandemic.

As a result, some defectors were released after one or two months in a labor training camp, and some were even escorted by police to their homes before defection and released after receiving a bribe (euphemistically called “bail”) from family members.

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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