Beijing has told Seoul it will repatriate some 20 North Korean defectors who were arrested in China, despite urgent requests from South Korea not to send them to almost certain internment in a gulag, torture or death in the North.
The defectors have been held in Tumen near the North Korean border since they were arrested in Shenyang last month. A South Korean activist group claimed 35 were arrested, but Beijing has told Seoul of only 20.
A diplomatic source in Seoul said, "It seems China declined the South Korean government's request for fear that releasing them would undermine its attempts to prevent a flood of defectors."
A Chinese official was reported as saying the defectors authorities catch in the three northeastern provinces tend to be in different positions. "Some may be in danger of being to a political prison camp, but others may merely face minor penalties for their involvement in economic offenses," he said.
"And how can we arbitrarily release North Korean defectors who are arrested for illegal sojourn in places other than South Korean embassies, consulates general, or schools," he said.
He added that if they are allowed to travel to South Korea even after being arrested by Chinese police, other defectors hiding in China would simply surrender en masse, creating diplomatic problems for China with its close ally North Korea.
Seoul sent an official from the Foreign Ministry's Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau to China last Thursday, who asked for them to be handed over to South Korea, but China turned him down, according to the diplomatic source.
Seoul emphasized its constitutional duty to protect defectors and repeatedly asking Beijing to reconsider its decision, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, a South Korean woman identified as Choi who was with the arrested defectors was released and returned home Monday night, a Foreign Ministry official said.