Ten years ago, a North Korean woman fled her country, leaving her family behind.
Last month, that woman got the chance to speak to her 22-year-old son on the phone for the first time since she left. He, too, had escaped North Korea and made it into China.
Mother and son spoke again days later. This time, the woman listened as Chinese security forces raided the safe house where her son was hiding.
“I heard voices, someone saying ‘shut up’ in Chinese,” the woman told Reuters reporters. She spoke on the condition that her name not be used to protect her son’s safety.
She added, “Then the line was cut off, and I heard later he was caught.”
The woman, who now lives in South Korea, said she has heard from some people that her son is being held in a Chinese prison near the North Korean border. She has not received any official news about him.
At least 30 North Korean escapees have been caught in a series of raids across China since April, family members and activist groups say.
Activists say the raids have interfered with the so-called North Korean “Underground Railroad” – a system of deal-makers, middlemen, aid groups and others that help North Koreans during their escape.
“The crackdown is severe,” said Y.H. Kim, chairman of the North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea.
The recent arrests have mainly happened away from the North Korean border, where most escapees get caught. Activists worry about this development.
“Raiding a house? I’ve only seen it two or three times,” said Kim. He left North Korea in 1988 and has acted as a middleman for the past 15 years.
Kim added, “You get caught on the way, you get caught moving. But getting caught at a home, you can count on one hand.”
Kim Seung-eun is a religious leader at Seoul’s Caleb Mission Church, which helps defectors escape. He said there are several likely reasons for the increase in arrests. Among them, he said, are worsening economic conditions in North Korea and China’s concern that there may be a major rise in the number of escapees.
Kim said, “In the past, up to half a million North Korean defectors came to China.” He was noting a period in the 1990s when North Korea had severe food shortages. “A lot of these arrests have to do with China wanting to prevent this again,” he said.
Kim Jeong-cheol already lost his brother trying to escape from North Korea. He now fears the same thing will happen to his sister, who was recently caught by Chinese security agents.
“My elder brother was caught in 2005, and he went to a political prison and was executed in North Korea,” Kim told Reuters. “That’s why my sister will surely die if she goes back there. What sin is it for a man to leave because he’s hungry and about to die?”
Reuters was unable to confirm the situations of Kim’s brother or sister. Calls to the North Korean embassy in Beijing were not answered.
Activist groups and lawyers seeking to help the families of defectors say there is no sign China has sent the recently arrested North Koreans back yet.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it had no information about the raids or the whereabouts of detainees. It does not usually confirm arrests of individual North Korean escapees, however.
In a statement to Reuters, it said North Koreans who enter China illegally because of economic reasons are not refugees.
“They use illegal channels to enter China, breaking Chinese law and damaging order for China’s entry and exit management,” the ministry said.
South Korea’s government said it tries to make sure North Korean defectors arrive safely and quickly to wherever they seek to go. But it did not offer more details, noting defectors’ safety and diplomatic relations.
Another woman - who asked to be unnamed for her family’s safety - escaped from North Korea eight years ago. At that time, she promised her sister and mother she would work to bring them out later.
In January, her mother died of cancer, she said.
Just before she died, her mother wrote a message on her hand urging her remaining daughter to leave North Korea.
The woman’s 27-year-old sister was in a group of four defectors who made it all the way to Nanning, near the border with Vietnam, before being caught.
“When you get there, you think you’re almost home free,” the woman said of her sister. “You think you’re safe.”
Increase in arrests
There is no official information on how many North Koreans try to leave their country. But South Korea, where most escapees try to go, says the number safely arriving in the South dropped after Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.
That year, over 2,700 North Korean escapees entered South Korea. By 2018, that number was 1,137.
Observers say the drop is partly because of increased security and crackdowns in both North Korea and China.
“Smash up networks”
An activist at another organization that helps people get out of North Korea said so far its network has not been affected. But the activist was concerned about networks being targeted and safe houses being raided.
“That is a bit of a different level, more targeted and acting on intelligence that they may have been sitting on to smash up networks,” he said. He talked to Reuters on the condition he not be identified to protect the organization’s work.
Y. H. Kim said the raids raised concerns that Chinese officials had secretly entered into some smuggling networks. They may have done so with the aid of North Korean intelligence agents.
“I don’t know about other organizations, but no one is moving in our organization right now,” Kim said. “Because everyone who moves is caught.”
I’m Caty Weaver.
And I’m Ashley Thompson.
The Reuters news agency reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
crackdown - n. a serious attempt to punish people for doing something that is not allowed : an increased effort to enforce a law or rule
church - n. a building that is used for Christian religious services
defector - n. a person who leaves a country, political party, organization, etc., and goes to a different one that is a competitor or an enemy
sin - n. an action that is considered to be wrong according to religious or moral law
exit - n. something (such as a door) that is used as a way to go out of a place
management - n. the act or process of controlling and dealing with something
smash up - phrasal verb. to break and destroy (something) in a purposeful way