A group of North Korean women and children has made a daring escape from China, evading coronavirus lockdowns imposed by Pyongyang and Beijing.
The outbreak in Wuhan triggered sweeping restrictions on internal movement inside China and North Korea in January, and an effective shutdown of their shared 1,420km border.
No official data are available but estimates of the number of North Koreans in China range from 50,000 to 200,000. At least two-thirds are thought to be women, many of whom are forced into marriage, labour or the sex trade.
The 20 refugees, who had been living under the protection of a missionary in rural China, arrived in a secret location in south-east Asia in separate groups over recent days. They are now in quarantine and are expected to be processed for resettlement, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation.
“With the missionary suddenly having to leave China for health reasons, their very fragile safety net was pulled out from beneath them,” said a person involved in the rescue.
“Pyongyang’s lockdown of the border did not necessarily mean China would stop detaining North Koreans they discovered. Their unprotected situation demanded urgent action.”
The defectors’ exact location cannot be revealed for security reasons. Their journey was supported by Helping Hands Korea, a Christian activist organisation that helps defectors, mostly women and children, reach freedom.
Yeonmi Park, a US-based defector and author who fled North Korea in 2007, said North Koreans in China were “invisible” despite the global focus on Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons.
“It is heartbreaking how the international community focuses on nukes and nothing else . . . [The] defectors in China, they may never get their justice and the international community will maybe forever just ignore them.”
Helping Hands Korea said the Coronavirus lockdown had forced them to accelerate efforts to rescue North Koreans because increased checks had made them even more vulnerable to discovery by Chinese authorities.
Three other non-governmental organisations involved in helping defectors said they were aware of other people inside North Korea and China who were planning escapes but were unable to leave because the journey was considered too dangerous.
“[Escaping is] almost impossible . . . attempts to defect from North Korea have been suspended for the time being due to the heightened security situation both in North Korea and China,” said the head of one NGO.
According to official statistics, the number of defectors to enter South Korea has declined from almost 3,000 in 2009 to just over 1,000 last year. Experts blame tougher security starting in 2012 following the rise to power of Mr Kim in North Korea and Xi Jinping in China.
Defectors caught trying to escape risk prison, torture or execution. They also endanger family members left behind. Those caught in China face a high chance of being sent back to North Korea and the same fate.