Ten North Korean defectors arrested in China - including a 3-year-old boy and his mother - now face being deported to their oppressive homeland, a pastor who helped them flee has warned.
The Rev. Kim Seung-eun, who manages a network of activists and smugglers from his church in South Korea, told the New York Times that he helped the boy, his mother and another North Korean leave their hometown near the border with China 10 days ago. Along with seven other North Koreans, the three hid in a house in Shenyang that was raided by Chinese police just over a week ago.
It is believed that the defectors are currently being held at a police station in Shenyang; however, Mr. Kim said that one of his people had gone to the police station on Monday but had not been allowed to see the North Koreans.
"When we checked again today, the refugees were gone," he said. "We fear the worst."
Kim, whose Caleb Mission church in Cheonan, south of Seoul, has helped hundreds of North Koreans resettle in the South, revealed that the 3-year-old boy's father, who fled to South Korea two years ago, had saved the money to help his family leave their town.
Eight of the 10 captured by police were women and that the oldest were in their 60s, he said, and the group was waiting for smugglers to take them across China and into Laos and Thailand.
He pointed out that since last month, more than 100 North Korean refugees had been detained in China and deported -- but their cases have been largely ignored.
"While the world is preoccupied with the North Korean nuclear crisis, these refugees' plight has gotten little attention," he said.
The human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide has called on the Chinese government to refrain from repatriating the defectors, as the Kim regime shows little mercy to citizens who leave the country. After assuming power in 2012, leader Kim Jong-un instituted a policy of "death for those involved in defections," while others are sent to prison camps.
"Forcibly repatriating North Koreans to their country violates the international humanitarian principle of 'non-refoulement' and risks sending people to their deaths," CSW Chief Executive Merwyn Thomas said in a statement. "Even if not actually executed, the conditions of torture and abuse in North Korean detention centres and prison camps are so severe that imprisonment amounts to a death sentence."
Roh Kyu-deok, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told The Times that South Korea was "closely monitoring" the case.
"We're making diplomatic efforts with the related country so that the defectors will not be forcibly repatriated," Mr. Roh said. "We have been consistently appealing for North Korean refugees to be sent where they want to go out of humanitarian consideration."
According to Reuters, China has a strictly enforced policy of sending back illegal entrants from North Korea, whom it considers economic migrants. For over a decade, North Korea has ranked no. 1 on Open Door USA's World Watch List of countries where believers face the most persecution.
"Worship of the ruling Kim family is mandated for all citizens, and those who don't comply (including Christians) are arrested, imprisoned, tortured or killed," reads the report. "Entire Christian families are imprisoned in hard labor camps, where unknown numbers die each year from torture, beatings, overexertion and starvation. Those who attempt to flee to South Korea through China risk execution or life imprisonment, and those who stay behind often fare no better."