Hundreds of North Korean defectors were awaiting repatriation as of last Friday after being arrested in various parts of China, rights activists say.
"Some 220 defectors have been interrogated by regional security departments in China and are being held at about 10 detention centers near the North Korea-China border," said Kim Hoe-tae of Solidarity for North Korean Human Rights. "They'll be sent back to the North one by one."
Other defector groups and activists say there are even more, counting those who are still on the way to detention centers after their arrests, bringing the total to anywhere between 300 and 400.
According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China sent between 4,800 and 8,900 defectors back to the North every year between 1998 and 2006, Kim added.
Former unification deputy minister Kim Suk-woo agreed. "China has repatriated about 5,000 defectors to the North every year under an agreement on the extradition of fugitives and criminals it concluded with the North in the 1960s," he said.
Different groups give different estimates on the number of defectors who have been arrested in Shenyang, Yanji, and Changchun this month, ranging from 24 to 40. "We're certain of the number of defectors arrested in China for whom we've worked through our brokers," a member of a defector group said. "But it's hard for us to find out the total number."
But most activists believe the numbers reported in the press are just the tip of the iceberg.
◆ Flood of Refugees
It is estimated that somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 North Koreans are currently roaming China, including North Korean women who were sold to Chinese men, people who crossed the border in search of food, and families who are trying to get to South Korea.
Those who are looking for food often find work at factories or lumber camps in China as undocumented immigrant workers. But those who wish to defect to the South move to designated gathering points, from where they are taken to safe houses provided by Christian missions and cross the border through the southwestern province of Yunnan into Laos or Burma. They then make their way to Thailand, where they spend three or four weeks in immigration detention centers before they are deported to South Korea.
Some 2,500 to 3,000 defectors have reached South Korea annually over the past five years, 2,737 last year.
The fate of defectors who are arrested in China and repatriated depends on what motivated them to flee in the first place. Those who fled hunger are normally categorized as ordinary criminals and held in prisons or labor camps managed by the Ministry of People's Security. They suffer forced labor and beatings but are released after a certain period.
But those who are found to have attempted to escape to South Korea, contacted South Koreans or foreigners, or visited churches, are treated as political criminals and held in political concentration camps supervised by the State Security Department. Some are executed, depending on the extent of their crimes or the prevailing mood in the regime.
"Defectors can escape the most severe punishment if they insist that they were merely trying to find food in China, even if they really wanted to go to South Korea," a defector said. "But if media reports confirm that they were trying to get to the South, as we've seen recently, they face the worst kind of punishment."
Meanwhile, the North Korean propaganda website Uriminzokkiri accused South Korea of "making a bigger fuss about the issue of 'defectors' than ever before."
It was the first response from the North since conflict between South Korea and China over the issue started making headlines.