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13 N. Korean defectors caught in China

North Korean escapees trying to reach South Korea have been arrested by police in Yunnan Province in southern China, local sources said Monday.

A North Korean human rights group official in Seoul said 13 people were caught in Kunming last Friday. Of those arrested, two were ethnic Koreans with Chinese citizenship who were acting as guides.

The source, who asked for anonymity, said of those caught, eight were part of a group being supported by a South Korean Christian mission. He said upon hearing of the arrest, those helping the escapees asked Seoul for help.

Yunnan is a province that all North Korean escapees must by-pass in order to reach countries such as Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. After reaching these country, the escapees make their way to South Korea.

Insiders familiar with escapees said North Koreans in China usually form small groups of no more than five to remain inconspicuous.

“If they form larger groups to save money on guides, they become easier to detect,” one informed official said.

Related to the latest arrest, a unification ministry official said Seoul is trying to confirm if the escapees have been caught.

“At present, related agencies are trying to verify the claims,” he said. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it is impossible to tell if the North put in a special request to Beijing or if the arrest was carried out by regional Chinese law enforcement without prior consultation.

The official said that while there have been reports that some of those caught had family members in South Korea, and these people urged Seoul to intercede, he could not confirm if such a request had been made.

On the other hand, a separate government official said if those caught are confirmed as North Koreans nationals, Seoul, following precedence, will ask Beijing not to send them back to their native country. (Yonhap News)
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