At least 13 refugees from North Korea have been arrested in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming while they were trying to reach South Korea, media reports said on Monday. Dong-A Ilbo newspaper which also reported the arrests put the number at 15.
Chinese police on Friday arrested the North Koreans who were trying to board a bus bound for an unidentified Southeast Asian nation, Yonhap news agency said. It cited South Korean activists promoting human rights for North Korean refugees.
“Most North Korean defectors travel in a group of five at most when crossing the Chinese border to a Southeast Asian nation,” said one activist quoted by Yonhap. “It appears that [the reason this group was larger than normal is] they were trying to save money for hiring brokers who could help them cross the border.”
Some 25,000 North Koreans have fled famine or repression at home to settle in the capitalist South over the past six decades. Almost all cross the North’s border into China. Many of them then secretly travel through China to a third nation – often in Southeast Asia – where they arrange to fly on to South Korea for resettlement.
China – the North’s sole major ally – considers the fugitives to be illegal economic migrants instead of refugees and repatriates those whom it catches. Rights groups strongly criticise Beijing’s policy. The fugitives can face severe punishment including a term in a prison camp once they are sent back to North Korea.