Dozens of North Korean defectors who were arrested in China are unlikely to be sent back to North Korea anytime soon, a Foreign Ministry official said Thursday. The official quoted the Chinese Foreign Ministry as saying it will take some time to interrogate them.
He said the Chinese government does not have a precise report but the number of defectors seems to be less than 30. Earlier reports said there were 35.
One man identified as Hwang (45) and a woman named Choi who were among those arrested already have South Korean citizenship and were apparently assisting the flight of others. The official said it is "unimaginable" that China will send people with South Korean passports to North Korea.
The activist group Commission to Help North Korean Refugees announced the arrests after a call for help on Sept. 28 from a 40-something woman identified as Paek who has settled in Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi Province after defecting from the North. Paek said she had helped her mother and nephew to flee to China, but they were arrested in Shenyang.
The activist group has so far discovered the identities of five of them.
The ministry has been criticized for dragging its feet over the issue. The defectors were arrested in Shenyang on Sept. 26, and the activists group announced their arrest in a statement on Sept. 30.
But the ministry was in the dark until the media reported the issue on Sunday. Even after the media reports, the ministry merely said it could not confirm the report due to a national holiday in China.
The ministry asked the Chinese Embassy in Seoul on Tuesday, but only after Liberty Forward Party lawmaker Park Sun-young urged it to deal with the issue. Only on Wednesday did Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan promise to dispatch a diplomat to China.