SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - South Korea’s foreign ministry says it is doing all it can to ensure the safety of seven North Koreans who were detained in China after fleeing their homeland.
“We are mobilizing all our diplomatic resources to ensure they are safe and that they do not wind up being returned to North Korea involuntarily,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said.
Speaking to reporters in Seoul on Friday, Kang would not elaborate about the case, which she called “very sensitive.”
“Their safety is on the line. It also requires delicate discussions with the host country, wherever they are,” Kang said.
The group faces possible forcible repatriation to North Korea, where they could be subject to punishments including forced labor, imprisonment, torture or execution.
China does not recognize North Koreans as refugees. Instead, it views them as illegal economic migrants and routinely sends them back to North Korea.
The group was captured last month in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning, after crossing the Yalu River that separates China and North Korea, according to activists.
Among those detained is a 9-year-old girl. The girl’s mother, who left North Korea several years ago and now lives in the South, has appeared at several protests in Seoul, pleading for authorities to work for the release of her daughter.
The journey from North Korea has become more dangerous in recent years, as China has expanded its surveillance near its border with North Korea.
In 2018, just 1,137 North Koreans defected to South Korea, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry. Ten years ago, that figure was nearly three times as high.
Though not common, China has in the past released North Korean defectors. In 2018, China freed 30 defectors, following international pressure, according to media reports.
Many activists complain North Korean human rights have become less of a priority amid negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.