A group of 20 North Korean defectors and six people assisting them were arrested in China last week, according to sources in South Korea.
The arrested North Koreans, who were discovered in Shandong and Yunnan provinces, consist of four families - including a couple in their 60s, those in their 20s and 30s, as well as a one-year-old baby. The six people assisting them were local Chinese guides and a North Korean defector who has already resettled in South Korea.
The South Korean government is in the process of obtaining details on the incident and contacting Beijing to seek the release of the defectors.
A Seoul official said in an interview with VOA's Korean service that Beijing was very reluctant to release the North Koreans. China has not publicly commented on the case.
Sources say the defectors are likely to be transferred to a detention center in the border town of Tumen and face deportation to the North.
A North Korean defector residing in the South, who has been involved with efforts to help the defectors escape, said the South’s consulate general in Shenyang is expected to make a consular visit to the defector already holding South Korean citizenship.
Earlier this year, three North Korean defectors were arrested in Yunnan. Last month, a total of 11 North Koreans were arrested by the Chinese police.
A Seoul official said Beijing appears to be modifying its crackdown on North Korean defectors by focusing its efforts on stopping those who help them.
South Korea, the U.S. and other western governments have called on China not to deport defectors to North Korea, where they could face persecution, torture and possibly death.
The Chinese government, however, views the defectors as economic migrants subject to deportation. Beijing also has a treaty with Pyongyang to send back any North Korean who crosses the border illegally.
Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.