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Activists warn U.S. Congress that North Koreans could get repatriated from China

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Hannah Song, director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, shows the Congressional Executive Commission on China photos of Chinese detention facilities holding North Koreans at a hearing held in Washington on Tuesday (local time). [YONHAP]
Hannah Song, director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, shows the Congressional Executive Commission on China photos of Chinese detention facilities holding North Koreans at a hearing held in Washington on Tuesday (local time). [YONHAP]

Almost 2,000 North Koreans held in detention centers in China could be forcibly repatriated once Pyongyang opens its borders, human rights activists told a U.S. congressional commission at an emergency hearing held Tuesday (local time).

The warnings came amid signs that the North could be preparing to resume cross-border exchanges and trade.

Members of the commission and witnesses invited to the session urged China to protect North Korean refugees.

“Close to 2,000 North Korean refugees are reportedly held in detention centers near the China-North Korea border,” Rep. Chris Smith, chair of the executive commission on China, said.

“Once North Korea lifts its Covid-19-imposed border closure policy, these refugees will likely face forced repatriation, despite the Chinese government’s international obligation to protect asylum-seekers.”

Hanna Song, director of the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), showed the commission recent satellite images that indicate Chinese detention facilities located near the border with the North are undergoing construction work, potentially expanding their capacity to hold more North Korean defectors who have been caught in China.

Song said that the number of North Koreans held in detention centers in China is likely between 600 and 2,000.

She said NKDB identified the locations of six major Chinese detention centers through interviews with former Chinese officials and former detainees.

China does not recognize North Korean defectors as refugees, but rather classifies them as economic migrants and subjects them to deportation back to the North, where they often face severe punishment.

Robert King, former U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, told the hearing, “Chinese government agencies carefully guard entrance to and exit from China. North Koreans who enter China illegally are apprehended and imprisoned in China. They are not permitted to leave China, and they are handed over to the government of North Korea.”

The closure of the North’s borders in January 2020, shortly after the first outbreak of Covid-19 was reported in Wuhan, China, has been followed by a steep drop in successful defections.

King noted that the number of North Korean refugees reaching South Korea drastically declined from a yearly average of 1,100 before the pandemic to only 229 in 2020, 63 in 2021 and 67 last year.

But Pyongyang recently announced a new law strengthening inspections of exports and imports, which might presage a reopening.

Suzanne Scholte, president of the Virginia-based human rights advocacy Defense Forum Foundation, said at Tuesday’s hearing, “There are credible rumors that the North Korea-China border will reopen soon because North Korea, which is facing more starvation reminiscent of the Arduous March, must increase exports to, and imports from, China.”

“The terrifying fear for all of us human rights advocates is that China’s first export to North Korea will be the nearly 2,000 North Korean children, women and men currently detained, at least half of whom are believed to have been attempting to reach South Korea,” Scholte added.

In his statement, King called on the U.S. government and the international community to “sanction any Chinese official involved in the forceful repatriation of any North Koreans back to North Korea, pointing out they will also be pursued in international court for being complicit in murder, if these fears are, indeed, realized.”

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]

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