(LEAD) Unification ministry says many N. Koreans in China believed to have been repatriated

Many North Koreans appear to have been repatriated from China, the unification ministry said Friday after a recent news report that about 600 North Koreans have forcibly been sent back home.

"It appears to be true that many North Korean residents in three northeastern Chinese provinces have been repatriated," Koo Byoung-sam, the spokesperson for the ministry, said in a press briefing. "We cannot accurately confirm how many defectors, patients and criminals were included among them."

Koo stressed that North Korean defectors staying overseas should never be sent back home against their will under any circumstances.

"Our government considers this situation regrettable and has sternly raised this issue with China and emphasized our position," the spokesperson said, without providing further details.

Koo said the government will do its best to protect overseas North Korean defectors.

Earlier this week, a local newspaper reported that China forcibly repatriated around 600 North Korean defectors detained in the Jilin and Liaoning provinces Monday night to their reclusive home country via border cities such as Dandong and Hunchun, right after the end of the Asian Games in Hangzhou.

Concerns have grown that North Korean defectors could undergo human rights abuses and face harsh punishment if they are sent back to North Korea after it reopened its border in August following more than three years of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Elizabeth Salmon, the U.N. special rapporteur for North Korea's human rights, has estimated that more than 2,000 North Korean defectors are currently detained in China.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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