Eleven North Korean defectors were arrested by Chinese border guards in the Chinese province of Yunnan on the border with Laos, an official here said Thursday.
The official said a woman who already lives in South Korea told authorities here on Tuesday that a group of 11 defectors including her sister were arrested on an established escape route from Kunming to Laos.
They left North Korea's Ryanggang Province last Thursday, traveling via Qingdao, Shandong Province, and arrived in Kunming on Saturday. On Monday morning they headed for the China-Laos border in a minivan but were nabbed by Chinese border guards at a checkpoint on Tuesday morning.
Some sent text messages to their relatives in South Korea, saying, "We've been caught" before communication was cut.
A source said most of them are women in their 20s and 30s, but there is also a child of about four.
Early this month, 18 defectors were arrested in Changchun, Jilin Province, and in July, 29 were caught in Qingdao and Yunnan. "As far as we know, 72 defectors have been nabbed in China this year," the source said. "Many more that we don't know about must have been caught because of recent crackdowns there."
The defectors have reportedly already been moved to a detention center in Tumen on the border with North Korea. If deported back to North Korea they face internment, torture and death.
Seoul has asked Beijing through various channels to stop sending defectors back to the North. During a visit to China last month, South Korean lawmakers asked Liu Yunshan, a member of China's Politburo Standing Committee, to help the defectors go where they want.
Chinese official were apparently more sympathetic than in the past and promised to consider the matter from a humanitarian standpoint.