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58 N. Korean Defectors Held

Authorities capture groups bound for South Korea and Japan at boat terminal in China.

January 20, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — One of the largest attempted defections by North Koreans was foiled in recent days by undercover Chinese police, who arrested 61 people and confiscated two fishing boats in which the defectors had hoped to sail to safety, activists said today.

The plan was for the North Koreans to sail from the Chinese city of Yantai on the Yellow Sea in two separate groups to South Korea and Japan. But Chinese authorities were tipped off and arrested most of the participants at a boat terminal in Yantai on Saturday.

"We fear for their lives," said Douglas Shin, a Korean American pastor who was one of the organizers. Shin said that North Korea, with the help of China, has launched a crackdown in the last month for fear that a massive number of defections coinciding with the current international standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear program could trigger instability in North Korea.

"Tensions are very high. The North Koreans are afraid that there could be a stampede of people escaping and that could bring about the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang," Shin said. "They are cracking down, and China is collaborating."

The Chinese government had no immediate comment on the arrests. The international aid group Doctors Without Borders today called on the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to press China to release those detained Saturday and other North Koreans who have been caught trying to defect. The group said 1,300 North Koreans are in detention centers in China, while 3,200 have been sent back to North Korea.

Those arrested in the escape attempt included 58 North Korean defectors, two human rights activists and one freelance photographer. The North Koreans ranged in age from 8 to 97. They had been in China for varying lengths of time -- some for as little as a few weeks, others for as long as seven years.

The plan had been for two separate groups to sail Saturday night from Yantai to Chuja, an island off South Korea's southern coast, and Sasebo, a port city on the southernmost main island of Japan, Kyushu. The two fishing boats had been purchased by human rights activists last year for $40,000.

The same group of activists -- which includes Americans, South Koreans, Japanese and Europeans -- has helped dozens of North Korean defectors storm into embassies in Beijing to demand asylum. The boat escape was to have been their largest operation.

Tens of thousands of impoverished North Koreans sneak into China each year. But they are denied refugee status and must live clandestinely because of a treaty between China and North Korea that requires that they be repatriated.

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