REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– Angry demonstrators staged a rally Tuesday near the Chinese Embassy here to protest China's arrests of dozens of North Korean defectors who face torture, imprisonment and even death if returned to their homeland.
For years, human rights advocates have criticized China's refusal to recognize North Korean defectors and its policy of returning, or repatriating, all escapees from the North captured on its soil. Beijing's stance has taken on more urgency in recent weeks, after new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to punish and even kill three generations of family members of anyone who tries to leave the impoverished North.
On Tuesday, ringed by police officers, more than 100 people gathered across the street from the Chinese Embassy, waving banners that read "The Chinese government should stop pushing North Korean defectors toward the guillotine" and "Forced repatriation is a death sentence."
South Korean newspapers have reported that separate arrests of North Korean defectors in China over the last week have brought the total of detainees to as many as 33, but activists could not confirm those numbers.
The arrests were the first involving a large group of North Korean defectors since Kim took control in Pyongyang. He assumed power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died of a heart attack in December.
"Once these defectors are sent back, they will surely die. They will be tortured and publicly executed," said Kim Young-ja, secretary-general of the activist group Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. "We are trying to push the Chinese government to stop that from happening. Especially after Kim Jong Un’s strict ordinance last December, there's no escape from death."
South Korea's human rights commission said the defectors arrested in Shenyang had planned to travel to South Korea to unite with family members. The group included a 19-year-old girl whose parents have already relocated to Seoul and a 16-year-old boy with an older brother in South Korea.
Tens of thousands of escapees from North Korea are reportedly hiding in China, one stop along a so-called underground railroad that can take them through Southeast Asia en route to new lives in South Korea, already home to about 23,000 North Korean defectors.
Officials from the National Human Rights Commission said they have received an urgent request from an unnamed activist group to intervene on behalf of the captured defectors, according to Seoul's Yonhap news agency.
South Korean government officials said Tuesday that they had contacted Chinese officials about the detentions.
"Our government has always had an interest in the defector problem, and we have been asking the Chinese government to handle the matter from a humanistic point of view," said Cho Byung-je, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry in Seoul. "Defectors should not be forcibly repatriated."
-- John M. Glionna and Jung-yoon Choi
Photo: South Korean activists stage a rally on behalf of North Korean refugees arrested by Chinese authorities. Credit: Lee Jin-man / Associated Press