Kim Seung-eun, a pastor at Seoul’s Caleb Mission Church, which helps defectors escape, estimates that about 40 North Koreans are trapped at various locations in China, unable to move onward because of the Chinese coronavirus lockdown. The Chinese lockdown is disrupting the main path through which North Koreans escape, forcing refugees to indefinitely pause their journeys, and leaving them vulnerable in a country that has long sent them back home to certain punishment.
If China’s virus lockdown expands to include house inspections, Pastor Kim warns, tens of thousands of other North Koreans at various stages of transit through China or who have decided to settle there illegally could be in danger.
“The road closures have blocked the route. It has all stopped — I asked them not to come through that area for now,” said a South Korea-based broker who helps organize North Korean defector journeys through China.
On the other hand, Teodora Gyupchanova, a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul, says, “It is possible that the virus-related travel restrictions could create loopholes that defectors and brokers could exploit. That is especially true if Chinese authorities prioritize potential coronavirus cases and focus on monitoring established transportation routes rather than clandestine ones,” Gyupchanova says. “People in this line of work are quite inventive, so I am sure that backup routes will soon be found,” she says.
Earlier this week, Pastor Kim told VOA’s Korea Service that he heard North Korea has temporarily stopped demanding that China repatriate defectors, out of concern they may bring the virus into North Korea. It is unclear what would happen to North Korean refugees who are discovered by Chinese authorities during the lockdown.