Nine North Korean defectors who were detained in China were repatriated to their homeland over the weekend as South Korea ratcheted up pressure on China not to send North Korean defectors to their communist country, informed sources said Thursday.
Seoul has repeatedly called on Beijing not to send back North Korean defectors held in China to their communist homeland, and has grown frustrated with Beijing's longstanding policy of turning a blind eye to its calls.
About 30 North Korean defectors were reportedly caught by Chinese authorities this month and have been awaiting repatriation to the North.
"My brother in North Korea called me, and said that my female cousin who crossed into China in late February was caught and sent back to North Korea," a North Korean defector told the Yonhap News Agency asking not to be named.
She said along with her cousin, eight other North Korean defectors were also caught by Chinese police and repatriated to their homeland.
Tens of thousands of North Korean defectors are believed to be hiding in China, hoping to travel to Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries before resettling in South Korea, home to more than 23,000 North Korean defectors.
North Korean defectors face harsh punishments and even execution after being repatriated from China, which does not recognize them as asylum-seekers, according to defectors in South Korea and human rights activists.
Activists in Seoul said North Korea has toughened punishments for defectors since its new leader, Kim Jong-un, took the helm of Pyongyang following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.