North Koreans In China Vanish As Border Reopens

Kim Cheol Ok fled hunger in North Korea and lived in China for decades before being forced to return to her restrictive homeland, according to her relatives.

She is one of hundreds of North Koreans deported by China in recent months, according to rights groups, who claim they fear incarceration, torture, and even execution once home.

Kim Cheol Ok’s family made the unusual and perilous decision to publicize her case when she disappeared last year.

In a desperate farewell phone, she “said that she would be sent back to…North Korea in two hours, and hung up,” her sister Kim Kyu-li told AFP.

She and her other relatives have been unable to contact her since.

Thousands of North Koreans are suspected to be living illegally along China’s northern border.

Beijing occasionally sweeps people up, but deportations stopped while the border was closed during the outbreak.

Unauthorized border crossings are considered a serious crime in Pyongyang, and violators are believed to face harsh punishments.

“In North Korea, prison is a dangerous place,” said Kim Kyu-li, who lives in London.

“A lot of people die.”

Neither China nor North Korea has officially acknowledged Kim Cheol Ok’s case.

However, AFP confirmed her story through interviews with Kim Kyu-li, a lawyer working for the deportees, and a source in China who spoke anonymously for fear of state reprisals.

‘Severe punishments’

Following the reopening of the Chinese-North Korean border, an AFP team visited the area.

Chinese border police barred the journalists from reaching four official crossing locations, claiming they required special licenses.

They included Nanping, located beside the North Korean city of Musan, where Kim Cheol Ok is thought to have been repatriated.

However, the reporters observed neighboring spots of the border, where North Korean guards stood sentry in watchtowers and behind rows of sharpened sticks.

They spotted North Koreans farming or transporting timber. Except for melancholy music reverberating off decaying housing buildings, one village was strangely quiet.

Chinese public announcements advised against contact with North Koreans and promised “severe punishments” for harbouring illegal migrants or smuggling.

Across the border, a giant North Korean propaganda sign looming over one settlement blared: “My country is the best!”

Doomed escape

Kim Cheol Ok, who is about 40 years old, fled into China in the 1990s when North Korea was experiencing catastrophic food shortages, according to Kim Kyu-li.

She was sold into marriage to a much older Chinese guy, had a daughter with him, and then spent decades in legal limbo.

After an episode of Covid-19 last year convinced her that she required legal status and healthcare, she attempted to exit China.

“She was so sick that she couldn’t even recognise (me),” Kim Kyu-li added.

“She suddenly asked me to get her out” of China, she said. “So I told her to wait and that I would do anything.”

Last April, Kim Kyu-li hired a broker to help Kim Cheol Ok make the 2,500-mile (4,000-kilometre) journey to Vietnam.

“Prison is a dangerous place” in North Korea, says Kim Kyu-li, whose sister disappeared while attempting to reunite with her family.

She hoped her sister would then be able to travel to South Korea, which grants citizenship to North Koreans. From there, Kim Cheol Ok would join her in Britain.

But no reunion ever took place.

“Usually, when they enter (Vietnam), we get a call within a week from the broker saying that they’ve arrived safely,” said Kim Kyu-li.

“But after 10 days, there was no news.”

Two hours’ notice

Kim Cheol Ok and two other North Koreans were apprehended by Chinese authorities shortly after leaving their home, according to Kim Kyu-li and an unknown source in China.

She endured months in a high-security detention center outside a dilapidated village near Baishan, Jilin province.

Her family claims they were not informed whether she was criminally prosecuted, tried, or punished.

They were permitted to bring clothes and money to the center, but were unable to visit Kim Cheol Ok.

Kim Kyu-li revealed that in October, she requested a final phone call from a jail official.

She informed her family that she was being taken back to North Korea two hours later and was never heard from again.

Kim Cheol Ok was one of 600 North Koreans deported from China that month, according to the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) in South Korea.

In December, the group believed that another 1,100 people were being kept for repatriation.

AFP was unable to independently verify the data. Calls to the facility indicated by Kim Cheol Ok’s family went unanswered, and officials asked media to leave the area.

‘Shoot on sight’ 

In recent decades, tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled to China in search of better living conditions.

Beijing regards them as unlawful economic migrants, driving many to seek refuge in third countries before making their way to South Korea.

However, arrivals have fallen since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power more over a decade ago.

During the outbreak, Pyongyang increased border security and implemented a “shoot on sight” policy, according to Seoul-based specialist media NK News.

According to Seoul’s unification ministry, only 196 North Koreans visited the South last year, down from over 3,000 in 2009.

Escapes dropped to “almost zero” once Covid limits were implemented in 2020, according to Sokeel Park, South Korea’s country director of the Liberty in North Korea rights organization.

Those who made it out of China were probably already there before the outbreak, he said, and further deportations were expected.

‘Hope she is alive’ 

China and North Korea, longtime allies, have increased diplomatic efforts in recent months.

According to Beijing’s foreign ministry, unauthorized migrants to China for economic motives are handled accordingly.

The Pyongyang embassy in China did not respond to a request for comment.

In London, Kim Kyu-li worried about her sister’s fate.

“I’m fighting with the hope that she is still alive,” she said.

“Just as she survived in China at a young age, I hope she will survive (in North Korea) too.”

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