Twenty-nine North Korean defectors and five of their South Korean helpers were arrested in China on July 15-17. They were nabbed in Qingdao, Shandong Province, and Kunming, Yunnan Province, on an established escape route to Southeast Asia, and face deportation, possible torture and execution in North Korea.
Kwon Na-hyun of an activist group for defectors on Tuesday said 20 defectors were arrested in Qingdao and nine others in Kunming. One of the helpers who were arrested is Na Su-hyun (39), himself a defector who now has a South Korean passport.
They have been transferred to a detention center in the border town of Tumen and face deportation to the North, Kwon added.
All defectors had stayed in a safe house in Qingdao, but some of them left for Kunming first. "Nine of them left for Kunming on July 14, because it would have been dangerous if all 29 defectors traveled together," Kwon said.
This is the largest-scale arrest of North Korean defectors and their helpers in China so far.
Since learning of their arrest on July 16, the South Korean government claims to have been negotiating with the Chinese government for their release. But Chinese police are digging in their heels because they want to stem a potential flood of refugees from the North.
Despite the latest improvement in the Seoul-Beijing relations and the worsening relations between Pyongyang and Beijing, there has been no big change in Beijing's policy to send North Korean defectors back.
Beijing is talking about its obligation under its border treaty with Pyongyang to send back people who cross the border illegally. It says the issue should be resolved between China and North Korea and is not a matter for any international organization or third country.
Since 2009, China has tried to prevent defectors who take shelter in South Korean missions in China from heading to South Korea.
Yoon Yeo-sang of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights said, "China has never stopped sending defectors back to the North and isn't going to."
Prof. Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University said China has "no choice" but to repatriate defectors because the North is vociferously demanding their return. "It's also a quite sensitive issue for China as it worries about border security and illegal entries," Yoo added.