North Koreans in China vanish as border reopens

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North Koreans in China vanish as border reopens


Kim Cheol Ok, who is about 40, crossed into China in the 1990s as North Korea endured devastating food shortages, Kim Kyu-li said.

She was sold into marriage with a much older Chinese man, had a daughter with him and spent decades in legal limbo.

After a bout of COVID-19 last year convinced her she needed legal status and healthcare, she decided to try to flee China.

“She was so sick that she couldn’t even recognise (me),” Kim Kyu-li added.

“She suddenly asked me to get her out” of China, she said. “So I told her to wait and that I would do anything.”

Last April, Kim Kyu-li hired a broker to help Kim Cheol Ok make the 4,000km journey to Vietnam.

“Prison is a dangerous place” in North Korea, says Kim Kyu-li, whose sister disappeared while attempting to reunite with her family.

She hoped her sister would then be able to travel to South Korea, which grants citizenship to North Koreans. From there, Kim Cheol Ok would join her in Britain.

But no reunion ever took place.

“Usually, when they enter (Vietnam), we get a call within a week from the broker saying that they’ve arrived safely,” said Kim Kyu-li.

“But after 10 days, there was no news.”


Chinese police had intercepted Kim Cheol Ok and two other North Koreans within hours of leaving home, Kim Kyu-li and the anonymous source in China said.

She spent months in a high-security detention centre outside a tumbledown village near the city of Baishan in Jilin province.

Her family say they were not told if she was criminally charged, tried or sentenced.

They were allowed to bring clothes and money to the centre, but could not see Kim Cheol Ok.

Then, in October, she asked a prison official for a final phone call, said Kim Kyu-li.

She told her family she was being sent back to North Korea two hours later and was never heard from again.

Kim Cheol Ok was among some 600 North Koreans deported from China that month, according to the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) in South Korea.

The group estimated a further 1,100 people were being held for repatriation as of December.

AFP was unable to independently verify the figures. Calls to the facility identified by Kim Cheol Ok’s family were unanswered and officials ordered the reporters out of the surrounding area.

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