N. Korean refugees caught in China

AFP-JIJI

At least 13 North Koreans have been arrested in the Chinese border city of Kunming on a secret journey to the South, media reports said Monday.

Chinese police Friday arrested 13 North Korean refugees who were trying to board a bus bound to an unidentified Southeast Asian nation, Yonhap news agency said. It cited South Korean activists promoting human rights for North Korean refugees.

The newspaper Dong-A Ilbo put the arrests at 15.

“Most North Korean defectors travel in a group of five at most when crossing the Chinese border to a Southeast Asian nation,” said one activist quoted by Yonhap. “It appears that they were trying to save money for hiring brokers who could help them cross the border.”

Some 25,000 North Koreans have fled famine and repression to settle in the capitalist South over the past six decades — mostly after the devastating famine in the late 1990s.

Most cross the increasingly porous border with China before secretly traveling to a third nation — often in Southeast Asia — where they seek permission to resettle in the South.

China, the North’s sole major ally, considers them illegal economic migrants instead of political refugees and repatriates them.

The refugees can face severe punishment, including a term in a prison camp, once they return home.

The North’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, is believed to have tightened border controls since he took power in late 2011.