A decade after leaving her family behind to flee North Korea, the defector was overwhelmed with excitement when she spoke to her 22-year-old son on the phone for the first time in May after he too escaped into China.
While speaking to him again on the phone days later, however, she listened in horror as the safe house where her son and four other North Korean escapees were hiding was raided by Chinese authorities. “I heard voices, someone saying ‘shut up’ in Chinese,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her son’s safety. “Then the line was cut off, and I heard later he was caught.”
The woman, now living in South Korea, said she heard rumors her son is being held in a Chinese prison near the North Korean border, but has had no official news of his whereabouts.
“Raiding a house? I’ve only seen two or three times,” said Y. H. Kim, chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea, who left North Korea in 1988 and has acted as a middleman for the past 15 years, connecting donors with brokers who help defectors. “You get caught on the way, you get caught moving. But getting caught at a home, you can count on one hand.”
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.
The increase in arrests is likely driven by multiple factors, including deteriorating economic conditions in North Korea and China’s concern about the potential for a big influx of refugees, said Kim Seung-eun, a pastor at Seoul’s Caleb Mission Church, which helps defectors escape.