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Human rights activists have alerted the U.S. Congress to the possibility of almost 2,000 North Koreans currently held in detention centers in China being forcibly repatriated once North Korea

reopens its borders. During an emergency hearing held on Tuesday, witnesses and members of the congressional commission urged China to safeguard North Korean refugees.

The warnings come at a time when there are indications that North Korea may be preparing to resume cross-border exchanges and trade. Rep. Chris Smith, chair of the executive commission on China, stated, "Close to 2,000 North Korean refugees are reportedly held in detention centers near the China-North Korea border. Once North Korea lifts its Covid-19-imposed border closure policy, these refugees will likely face forced repatriation, despite the Chinese government’s international obligation to protect asylum-seekers."

Hannah Song, director of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, presented recent satellite images to the commission, revealing ongoing construction work at Chinese detention facilities near the border. This suggests a potential expansion of their capacity to accommodate more North Korean defectors who have been apprehended in China.

Song estimated that the number of North Koreans currently detained in Chinese centers ranges from 600 to 2,000. The locations of six major Chinese detention centers were identified by NKDB through interviews with former Chinese officials and former detainees.

China does not recognize North Korean defectors as refugees but considers them economic migrants, subjecting them to deportation back to North Korea where they often face severe punishment. Former U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, emphasized that North Koreans who enter China illegally are apprehended and imprisoned, with no permission to leave China. They are subsequently handed over to the North Korean government.

Since the closure of North Korea's borders in early 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, successful defections have significantly decreased. The number of North Korean refugees reaching South Korea dropped from an average of 1,100 per year prior to the pandemic to 229 in 2020, 63 in 2021, and 67 last year.

Recent developments, such as North Korea's announcement of a new law strengthening inspections of exports and imports, have raised speculation about a potential reopening of the border. Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, expressed concerns during the hearing, stating, "The terrifying fear for all of us human rights advocates is that China’s first export to North Korea will be the nearly 2,000 North Korean children, women, and men currently detained, at least half of whom are believed to have been attempting to reach South Korea."

In response to these concerns, Robert King called upon the U.S. government and the international community to sanction any Chinese officials involved in the forceful repatriation of North Koreans. He further emphasized that if these fears materialize, those officials could face prosecution in international courts for being complicit in murder. Photo by Michael Day, Wikimedia commons.