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Hundreds of North Korean defectors 'vanished' after China deportations, rights group says

Up to 600 North Korean defectors who were forcibly repatriated by China have "vanished," Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group said Thursday. File Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI

Dec. 7 (UPI) -- Up to 600 North Korean escapees have "vanished" after being forcibly sent back home from China, a Seoul-based human rights organization said Thursday.

The Transitional Justice Working Group said in a briefing that no communication has been established with the defectors, 70% of whom are believed to be women, since they were deported in October after the North reopened its borders following the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights Elizabeth Salmon said last year that an estimated 2,000 escapees were being detained in China, where they are classified as "illegal migrants" and not given refugee protections.

Calls have been mounting on China not to repatriate the escapees, who advocates say will face brutal treatment in detention facilities.

"Torture, sexual and gender-based violence, imprisonment in concentration camps, forced abortions and execution await those forcibly returned in the largest mass repatriation of its kind in years," TJWG said in a statement.

On Thursday, the rights group is hosting an event in New York to urge the United States, Britain and other governments to pressure Beijing to end its policy of forcible repatriation.

"The international silence shrouding the human rights atrocities against the North Korean people must stop," Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, legal analyst at TJWG, said in an emailed statement.

Shin said at least 1,100 more North Koreans are being held in Chinese detention centers.

"They are 'sitting ducks' who could be deported back to the murderous regime which they fled from at any moment," he said.

One of the few known recently deported North Koreans is Kim Cheol-ok, who escaped in 1998 at age 14 during a devastating famine. After living in the province of Jilin for 25 years with a Chinese husband and a daughter, Kim was suddenly arrested in April and has been incommunicado since.

Her sister is scheduled to speak at the TJWG event on Thursday.

"My sister's only crime was being born in North Korea," she was quoted as saying in the TJWG release. "All I want is for her to live in safety."

Rights groups and officials in Seoul said in October that some 600 escapees were sent back at five border crossing points in China's Jilin and Liaoning provinces. TJWG said Thursday it had confirmed details of the deportations through video and on-the-ground sources.

Neither China nor North Korea has acknowledged the repatriations. In October, China's foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said there was "no such thing as so-called 'North Korean defectors' in China."

South Korea's National Assembly adopted a resolution last week urging China not to repatriate the defectors. It also calls for China to recognize North Koreans in the country as refugees and permit them to move onward to South Korea or other countries.