A “large number” of North Koreans appear to have been repatriated from China, Seoul’s unification ministry said Friday, confirming claims made by multiple rights groups.
Most of the tens of thousands of North Koreans who have escaped repression and poverty at home have made the arduous, high-risk journey across the country’s land border with China, where they face arrest and possible deportation.
Activists say the fugitives face severe punishment, or even a death sentence, if forced to return home.
“It appears to be true that a large number of North Korean residents were repatriated to North Korea from the three northeastern provinces of China,” unification ministry spokesman Koo Byoung-sam told reporters, without giving an exact number.
“Our government regrets this situation and raised this issue seriously with China, emphasising our position,” he added.
South Korea’s “position is that under no circumstances should North Korean defectors living abroad be forcibly repatriated to North Korea against their free will”, he said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Thursday declined to address specific deportation claims, saying there was “no such thing as so-called ‘North Korean defectors’ in China”.
“China has always upheld a responsible attitude towards DPRK (North Korean) people who enter China illegally for economic reasons, and persists in properly handling them in accordance with the combined principles of domestic law, international law and humanitarianism,” he told reporters at a daily press briefing.
Seoul’s announcement comes after the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo cited rights groups in reporting that Beijing had repatriated about 600 North Koreans on the night of October 9.
Human Rights Watch separately said Beijing had “forcibly returned” more than 500 North Koreans to their home country.
China is North Korea’s strongest ally and most important trading partner.
Elizabeth Salmon, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, has estimated that approximately 2,000 North Korean defectors are currently being held in China.
Under a 1986 bilateral border protocol, North Koreans are not permitted to seek asylum or resettlement in China, and are instead deported back, according to HRW.
“Governments should denounce China’s latest returns and call for an end to future forced returns,” the rights group said in a statement.
“The Chinese government should provide UN authorities with access to North Korean detainees and either grant North Koreans refugee status or give them safe passage to South Korea or other countries.”