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S. Korea confirms China’s forced reparation of numerous N. Koreans

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : Oct. 13, 2023 - 16:27

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Unification Ministry spokesperson Koo Byoung-sam speaks during a press briefing on Friday. (Yonhap) Unification Ministry spokesperson Koo Byoung-sam speaks during a press briefing on Friday. (Yonhap)

South Korea's Unification Ministry on Friday officially confirmed China has resumed the forced repatriation of North Koreans following the opening of its border last month. The ministry called for an immediate halt to this practice, which breaches international human rights law.

"It appears to be the fact that a significant number of North Koreans have been repatriated from three provinces in Northeast China," Koo Byung-sam, the Unification Ministry spokesperson, said during a televised press briefing.

"Nevertheless, it is challenging to precisely know the specific breakdown (of those repatriated), including defectors, patients, criminals and others."

The Unification Ministry declined to confirm the exact number of North Korean defectors repatriated. The Korea Herald has learned that the actual number is far less than the figure claimed by the Seoul-based North Korean human rights organization, Justice for North Korea.

The ministry's official confirmation came two days after the organization asserted that around 600 North Korean defectors detained in China's Liaoning and Jilin provinces were forcibly repatriated to North Korea on Monday night.

This is a notable date, especially as Tuesday marks the anniversary of the foundation of North Korea's Workers' Party of Korea.

"The government's stance remains steadfast: No North Korean defectors residing overseas should be forcibly repatriated against their will. Coercive repatriation to North Korea against their wishes violates the international norm prohibiting forced repatriation," Koo emphasized.

Under international human rights law, the principle of non-refoulement ensures that no one should be returned to a country where they may encounter torture, cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment, or other forms of irreparable harm.

The Unification Ministry is dedicated to preventing any potential forced repatriation of North Korean defectors who have fled their homeland.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic had halted China's practice of forcibly returning North Korean defectors. However, North Korea has now reopened its borders and has allowed the entry of foreigners since September 25, according to China's state broadcaster CCTV.

"Our government regrets the situation and has conveyed its strong concerns to Chinese authorities, emphasizing our position on the matter," Koo stated.

He further noted that the South Korean government has maintained ongoing communication with China through diplomatic channels but declined to disclose specific details.

The Unification Ministry emphasized its commitment to "protect North Korean defectors residing in third countries through collaborative efforts, including engagement with the Foreign Ministry," in anticipation of potential additional repatriations of North Korean defectors.

In June, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, the South Korean nongovernmental organization, reported that as many as 2,000 North Korean defectors were estimated to be detained in China, facing the risk of repatriation.