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Concerns are raised that China may return defectors back to North Korea

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Not many people make it out of North Korea. The country seals its borders. And, unless you go to sea, you can only escape to two neighboring countries, South Korea or China. Those who reached China have reached the territory of North Korea's only friend. The United Nations worries about what happens to North Koreans who did get out of their country to China. Could China send them back? NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Kim Jeong-ah served as a lieutenant in the North Korean army. She says if there's one thing she's always been good at, it's running away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM JEONG-AH: Hello. My name is Kim Jeong-ah.

KUHN: Kim defected via China to South Korea in 2009. She runs a YouTube channel about life in North Korea. She also heads a civic group that tries to reunite defectors with the children they left behind in China and North Korea. Kim herself was given away by her parents and adopted by another family. She first married at age 27 but claims her husband beat her, leading to the death of her second child. After divorcing her husband, she says she asked her adoptive father for help, but he refused.

KIM: (Through interpreter) My only reason for defecting was to take revenge on my adoptive father. I didn't know what was wrong with the North Korean system, and I was loyal to it.

KUHN: In 2006, she crossed the Yalu River into China, leaving behind a daughter.

KIM: (Through interpreter) It took about a month after I crossed into China to be sold to my Chinese husband for 19,000 yuan.

KUHN: That's about $2,375. Shortly after arriving in China, Kim found she was pregnant by her ex-husband and gave birth to another daughter. But Kim did not feel safe. She heard rumors that then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was set to visit China, which he did in May of 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: (Through interpreter) Whenever a high-ranking North Korean official visited China, they would ask for, say, 500 or 1,000 defectors, and China would immediately repatriate them as if it were a gift.

KUHN: Kim feared she could be repatriated, so after more than two years in China, she fled once again, leaving another daughter behind. She paid brokers to smuggle her into Myanmar, then bribed local police to let her escape to Thailand and finally made her way to South Korea. From there, she called her husband in China and implored him to bring their daughter to join her.

KIM: (Through interpreter) I could hear my daughter's voice until then. But my Chinese husband was adamant. He wouldn't listen to me and kept saying he would never leave China and threatened that I would never see my daughter unless I go back.

KUHN: The flow of defectors coming out of North Korea into China has slowed to a trickle during the pandemic, and defectors whom China usually catches and sends back to the north have been stuck in China because North Korea won't take them back. U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Elizabeth Salmon briefed the U.N. Human Rights Council on the situation last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH SALMON: Due to the border closures, over 1,000 of North Korean escapees have been detained in China indefinitely. Forcibly repatriated people are at risk of being sent to kwanliso - political prison camps.

KUHN: She called on China not to repatriate the detained defectors, even after the China-North Korea border reopens. Beijing, though, sees them not as defectors but as illegal economic migrants. At the U.N., Chinese diplomat Jiang Han rebutted Salmon's remarks through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIANG HAN: (Through interpreter) My government attaches great importance to protecting the lawful rights of foreign nationals in China and to suppressing trafficking in women and children. Those North Koreans who have entered China illegally are not refugees.

KUHN: But Salmon says in an interview that their status doesn't matter. Under international law, she says, if people are deported to face persecution, torture or other serious human rights violations, then...

SALMON: These states are prohibited from transferring or removing individuals from their jurisdiction to a place where these awful things may happen.

KUHN: Salmon notes that female North Korean defectors are particularly at risk because they're looking to escape North Korea, and Chinese men near the North Korean border are desperately short of marriageable women.

SALMON: I think it's important that the particular situation of North Korean women fall into forced marriage or trafficking. Or some others cross the border knowing that they will be forced to marry a Chinese man. But it's important to understand that they have no other choice to escape.

KUHN: Despite international concerns, China is unlikely to allow defectors to stay or travel elsewhere. If China were to help North Korean defectors to get to South Korea, they could trigger a wave of defections that could destabilize the North Korean regime. So says Yoon Yeo-sang, chief director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a Seoul-based civic group. He notes that by using surveillance technology, video cameras and facial recognition software, China has already been able to drastically reduce the number of North Korean defectors entering the country.

YOON YEO-SANG: (Through interpreter) Before COVID, we had at least 1,000 defectors arriving in South Korea annually. But last year, we only had 60.

KUHN: And he says those numbers may not rebound, even after North Korea lifts COVID controls. Yoon estimates that the number of North Korean defectors in China has dwindled in recent decades from around 100,000 to just 10,000, 90% of whom are now women.

YOON: (Through interpreter) It's not that North Koreans don't have the will to escape their country. It's because of their surveillance technology. Defection has become much harder. And, in that sense, China has become the winner.

KUHN: North Korean defectors' predicament is ironic, in a sense, because they're the only refugees in the world, Yoon notes, that are automatically eligible for citizenship in another country. That country is South Korea. But as Yoon explains, South Koreans see this issue differently.

YOON: (Through interpreter) Even though the peninsula is divided, we have lived together for thousands of years. So we see them as the people we will again live together with someday, not as foreigners or refugees.

KUHN: Yoon says that's what motivates him to do his work. Defector Kim Jeong-ah, meanwhile, says she's motivated by the quest to reunite with her children.

KIM: (Through interpreter) My birth mother gave up on me, but I will never give up on my daughters. And I can make this decision because I am alive. I think that's the biggest success that defection has brought me.

KUHN: She's now been separated from her daughter in China for more than 13 years and her daughter in North Korea for nearly 17 years. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.