Human rights activists are criticizing China after reports that Beijing forcibly returned more than 500 North Korean defectors.
According to several South Korean rights groups that work with North Korean refugees, the defectors were sent across the China-North Korea border earlier this week, shortly after the end of the 2022 Asian Games held in Hangzhou, China.
The reported mass repatriation of North Koreans is China’s first since Pyongyang began loosening its COVID-19 border restrictions in recent months.
Before the pandemic, China regularly sent defectors back to North Korea, where they face punishment including forced labor, imprisonment, torture, or execution.
China's Foreign Affairs Ministry has not confirmed the repatriation, but defended Beijing’s approach toward such North Koreans, which it views as illegal economic migrants.
At a Thursday briefing, spokesperson Wang Wenbin insisted there are no "so-called defectors" in China.
"China has always maintained a responsible attitude and dealt with them properly in accordance with the combined principles of domestic and international law and humanitarianism," he added, according to Reuters.
Jihyun Park, who escaped North Korea and is now a Britain-based human rights activist, rejected that notion, saying North Korean defectors should be given protections afforded to refugees under international law.
"The forced repatriation of North Korean defectors is not just a matter of North Korean citizens; it is an international human rights issue," Park told VOA.
"Especially, China, as a member of the United Nations, is violating international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention Against Torture, and the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness," she added.
Park first fled North Korea in 1998, during a devastating famine. She made it to China, where she was sold by smugglers into a forced marriage. Six years later, she was arrested by Chinese police and sent back to North Korea, where she was sentenced to a prison camp for political criminals. She escaped a second time in 2004, and eventually was granted asylum in Britain.
"Being sent to North Korea was, in itself, a death sentence for us, like stepping into the tunnel of hell. That nightmare still haunts us to this day," Park said.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday confirmed the mass repatriation, noting "the returnees, mostly women, are at grave risk of being detained in forced labor camps, and face torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, and execution."
According to a source cited by the New York-based organization, the Chinese government transported the North Koreans in vehicle convoys over five border crossings Monday night. Some of the detainees had managed to have Chinese guards call family members in South Korea to inform them, it added.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, said Friday it believes a large group of North Koreans was repatriated from China’s three northeastern provinces, although it could not determine how many of them were defectors.
"Under no circumstances should North Korean refugees who are staying abroad be forced to return to North Korea against their will," said Unification Ministry spokesperson Koo Byoung-sam.
"Our government expresses regret for this situation, and we sternly raised this issue with the Chinese side, emphasizing our position," Koo added.
The U.S. government is also aware of the reports regarding forced repatriation, according to a U.S. State Department spokesperson.
"North Koreans forcibly repatriated are reportedly commonly subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, forced abortion, other forms of gender-based violence, and summary execution," the spokesperson said. "We call on all states to respect the principle of non-refoulement and to uphold applicable non-refoulement obligations."
The number of North Korean escapees plummeted to historic lows in recent years, according to figures from South Korea, as Pyongyang imposed harsh lockdown measures.
Although North Korea began to loosen its COVID-19 border controls in August, the number of defectors may remain low, since activists say North Korea used the pandemic to significantly boost border security measures.