At least 30 North Korean escapees have been rounded up in a string of raids across China since mid-April, according to family members and activist groups. It is not clear whether this is part of a larger crackdown by China, but activists say the raids have disrupted parts of the informal network of brokers, charities, and middlemen who have been dubbed the North Korean “Underground Railroad”.
“The crackdown is severe,” said Y. H. Kim, chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea.
Most worrisome for activists is that the arrests largely occurred away from the North Korean border – an area dubbed the “red zone” where most escapees get caught – and included rare raids on at least two safe houses.
An activist at another organization that helps spirit defectors out of North Korea said so far its network had not been affected, but they were concerned about networks being targeted and safe houses being raided.
“That is a bit of a different level, more targeted and acting on intelligence that they may have been sitting on to smash up networks,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect the organization’s work.
Y. H. Kim, of the Refugees Human Rights Association, said the raids raised concerns that Chinese authorities had infiltrated some smuggling networks, possibly with the aid of North Korean intelligence agents.
“I don’t know about other organizations, but no one is moving in our organization right now,” he said. “Because everyone who moves is caught.”