(CNN)A network of secret routes and safe houses used by North Koreans to escape the brutal rule of Kim Jong Un via China could be under threat.
Activists and organizations working with North Korean defectors say Beijing is increasingly cracking down on safe houses and there has been a recent uptick in the arrest of escapees.
The network was set up by Korean pastors inspired by the Underground Railroad, the secret passages enslaved African-Americans used to escape to free states from the late 1700s until the American Civil War.
The arrests “have become more intense recently,” said Ji Seong-ho, a defector and President of Now Action and Unity for Human Rights (NAUH), a group working to improve human rights conditions in North Korea. “There seems to be five to seven arrests (raids) each month. Refugees flee in a group so that is up to 20 to 30 people arrested every month,” Ji said.
Due to the secrecy shrouded over everything to do with North Korea, CNN cannot independently verify the numbers.
But Reuters, who was first to report on the crackdown, said at least 30 North Korean escapees have been caught in raids in China since mid-April, citing activist groups and family members.
Most North Koreans escaping over the northern border into China are trying to reach South Korea in search of a better life away from a regime that tightly controls every aspect of their lives.
China, a close ally of Pyongyang, doesn’t consider North Korean defectors refugees, instead seeing them as illegal economic migrants. Under a border agreement with North Korea, it forcibly deports them.
Once back in North Korea, defectors face possible torture, sexual violence, hard labor, imprisonment in political or re-education camps, or even execution by the North Korean state, according to activists.
In a statement provided to CNN, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated the country’s longstanding policy that North Koreans who enter China illegally for economic reasons are not refugees.
The statement added that “China sticks to the principles and stance that combine domestic international laws and humanitarian spirits” when dealing with North Koreans who illegally enter China.
The ‘Underground Railroad’
The high stakes risks that come with getting caught mean activists and rescuers work extremely carefully to get defectors out of China, and the secrecy of the underground network is paramount.
“Each individual cell knows nothing about the other ones, to avoid compromising the whole operation if one of them gets caught,” Tim Peters, an American pastor who co-founded an NGO called Helping Hands that helps defectors flee, recently told CNN.
While arrests of defectors are not new, multiple activists say it’s becoming more common.
“Before this year, it was very rare for the escapees to be caught in the safe house,” said Y. H. Kim, chairman of the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea. China has “ramped up their crackdown,” he said.
Ji said arrests used to occur in certain regions, but “now it’s everywhere in China.”
In April, seven North Korean defectors, including a 10-year-old girl, were caught by Chinese authorities while trying to escape to South Korea. Kim said the captured seven are still in Chinese custody.
Human Rights Watch has called on Beijing to protect the escapees and “end its complicity with North Korean rights violations by ending the practice of forcing back fleeing North Koreans.”
There are no official statistics showing exactly how many North Koreans have fled their country, which is home to about 25 million people. South Korea says it has welcomed more than 32,000 defectors since 1998. Last year alone, the country received 1,137 defectors — and 85% of them were women.
In a statement provided to CNN, an official from South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the country’s government has made “diplomatic efforts” to prevent North Korean refugees from being forcibly repatriated “and safely go where they wish.”
Usually defectors pay brokers to organize their safe passage to China, according to NGOs and defector accounts. But many face exploitation, abuse, and risk being sold into sexual slavery or as brides to Chinese men.
In the past, defectors crossed the Gobi desert into Mongolia, aiming to reach the South Korean Embassy in the capital Ulaanbaatar. But that route closed in 2010, when Ulaanbaatar reinstated strong diplomatic links with North Korea.
The only option left was to go south through China, into Southeast Asia, hoping to reach a country that wouldn’t send North Korean refugees home.
‘Growing anxiety’ in North Korea
Ji, whose group NAUH claims to have helped rescue 60 refugees this year so far, said the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump, which ended with no agreement, could partly be behind the crackdown.
The two leaders were unable to reach a nuclear agreement at their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February and tensions have since escalated between the two countries, with nuclear negotiations stalling.
“After the failure of the Hanoi summit, the North Korean government had become tense,” Ji said. “There is a heightened agitation among North Korean residents.”
Inside the country, Ji said market activity is being stifled and distribution has become tougher.
“Part of it is the sanctions,” he said. “Another is cash transfer into North Korea from defectors outside being blocked. It is done to control the people, but that money was also the source of energy to facilitate the market.”
As talks between North Korea and the US stall, ties between North Korea and China are looking up.
Relations between the two countries had been in a deep chill under Kim Jong Un until recently. But an unexpected visit by Kim to China to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in March 2018, signaled the beginning of a new era of Beijing-Pyongyang relations.
“From last year, through the summit with Xi, the North Korea-China relation had gotten closer. This suggests that it is more probable that China will cooperate with North Korea,” said Cheong Seong-chang, vice president of the research planning at Sejong Institute.
But tighter relations with China signals bad news for escapees.
“In the past, whenever the relation between China and North Korea became closer the crackdown intensified. And when they are distant, the crackdown also relaxes,” Cheong said.
Xi visits Pyongyang
On Thursday, Xi arrived in Pyongyang for his first official trip to North Korea since he came to power in 2012 — and the first visit by a Chinese leader in 14 years.
Kang Cheol-hwan, director of North Korea Strategy Center, said high-level visits between the two countries often involve talk of strengthening security at their shared border.
“Every time Kim Jong Un visits China he asks them to help maintain his regime by securing the border. Every time the Chinese government is unhappy with North Korea, it uses the border as a leverage. Xi’s visit to Pyongyang signals (a) strengthened crackdown,” Kang said.
After Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, border security was tightened to avoid the bad publicity associated with defections and prevent information about North Korea trickling into the country, according to Peters, the American pastor. An electric fence was added, as well as cameras at the border, he said.
“On the Chinese side, patrols were also increased because Beijing is afraid an influx of refugees could destabilize its own regime,” Peters recently told CNN.
Activists say the effects of sanctions and the fallout from the failed summit are taking its toll on North Korean citizens, who are increasingly hearing more about the outside world through illegal DVDs or USB sticks smuggled into the country, or through foreign radio.
Kang said that he believes the number of North Koreans wanting to escape has risen “but the actual number had fallen due to complete lock down of the border.”
“On the border, the Chinese authorities had hung security cameras all over and fenced the length. It’s not easy.”
For North Koreans dreaming of a better life, the already dangerous journey to escape is now more perilous than ever.
Journalist Julie Zaugg contributed.