SEOUL (REUTERS) - Chinese authorities have arrested 11 North Koreans who had fled their country and will likely deport them back to the North where they could face severe punishment, a human rights activist said on Wednesday.
The 11 were arrested in China's Jilin province that borders North Korea on June 19, said the activist, who has worked as a Christian missionary helping North Korean defectors in China. He asked to be identified only by his surname Kim in order not to jeopardise his work with defectors in China. "We hope that (Chinese President) Xi Jinping will help these people as the leader of a great nation," Kim told Reuters.
Mr Xi visits South Korea on Thursday for talks with President Park Geun-hye focusing on the North's nuclear programme and promoting the two countries' commercial ties.
The United Nations has said China is required under international law not to return defectors to North Korea, where they could face persecution, torture and possibly death.
China says North Korean defectors are refugees who flee their country for economic reasons. North Korea calls them criminals and those who try to bring them to South Korea kidnappers.
A United Nations report issued this year detailed wide-ranging abuses in the North, including systematic torture, starvation and killings comparable to Nazi-era atrocities. Authorities in the North rejected the report as a fabrication.
Last year, nine young people arrested by Lao authorities were sent back to North Korea, raising international concerns about their plight.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry said at the time the nine had been "forcibly deported to the North" after being picked up by North Korean agents in Laos as they tried to make their way to the South.
Scores of North Koreans attempt to flee their country every year, often first crossing into China and then making their way to Southeast Asia. Some countries in the region have worked with South Korea to send them to the South.
More than 20,000 have made their way to South Korea, many with the help of South Korean human rights groups, religious organisations or commercial brokers.