China urged to stop forcibly returning North Korean defectors

North Korea Updates

Human rights activists have urged Beijing to stop repatriating North Korean refugees, fearing that more than 1,000 people detained in China will be tortured by Kim Jong Un’s security officials.

At least 1,170 North Koreans are being held in China, including 450 men in a prison in Changchun, a city in northeastern Jilin province, according to Human Rights Watch.

The calls came amid concerns about a sharp drop in the number of North Korean defectors who have successfully escaped, sailing on dangerous journeys through China to South Korea.

Only two defectors arrived in South Korea in the second quarter of the year, a record and after 229 for all of 2020, according to the Seoul Unification Ministry. This is down from over 1,000 in 2019 and almost 3,000 in 2009.

Critics from Beijing also followed a report by Radio Free Asia that China repatriated around 50 North Koreans this month. The report has not been independently confirmed by the Financial Times.

The event would likely have marked the first case of mass forced returns since January 2020, when North Korean authorities instituted a sweeping trade and travel crackdown in response to the risk of Covid-19 transmission from China.

“China is obligated not to push back anyone who might risk persecution or torture upon return,” said Lina Yoon, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, noting that Beijing is a party to United Nations conventions to protect refugees and prevent violence. torture.

“Since anyone who returns to North Korea after having fled is likely to be tortured or ill-treated, everyone has a refugee claim in the country they are going to,” she said.

The long-term decline in the number of escapees reflects the tightening of security procedures imposed in the border regions of North Korea and China following the coming to power of Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping.

Beijing has long been suspicious of the risk of destabilization in North Korea, which could provoke an influx of refugees across its 1,352 km border with the nuclear-weapon state.

Estimates of the number of North Koreans in China range from 50,000. Many defectors live in China for years, some paying off their debts, before venturing to Southeast Asia, where they can be accepted and processed by South Korean embassies.

But experts helping defectors get to safety said Beijing’s increasingly stringent controls on internal movements and the adoption of tech surveillance created new risks.

The number of brokers ready to help North Korean defectors has also declined, a sign of the effectiveness of the crackdown on both sides of the border.

Pyongyang has not reported any coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic. North Korean observers remain uncertain about the likelihood of a short-term vaccination program despite growing signs of a severe economic downturn and the worsening humanitarian situation in the country.

North Korea could access the Oxford / AstraZeneca jabs through the Covax program under Gavi, a UN-backed alliance, but foreign experts were denied access to the country to assess the state of its networks of distribution.

Some experts expect trade flows with China to slowly pick up over the next few months via new, highly-controlled disinfection zones near Sinuiju, North Korea’s main road artery with Dandong in northeastern China. China.