North Korean defectors recaptured in China after more than 40 days on run

Bystander found 1,100 items of personal property owned by former North Korean soldier at Panjin city

North Korean defectors recaptured in China after more than 40 days on run

A North Korean soldier who was missing for more than 40 days has been recaptured in China, according to an unusual joint operation by North and South Korean authorities.

The soldier, a former North Korean officer who defected undercover to China in late March, was found with more than 1,100 items of personal property that included guns, a grenade launcher, two assault rifles, a list of the 108 commanders who control his unit and details of his unit’s activities.

The young soldier also told authorities that his defection was due to his own lack of trust in the North Korean regime and that he had also been influenced by the recent visit to South Korea by the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un.

In what would seem to be a close call, a border guard in northeast China “captured” the soldier in a late-night raid, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry. The defector was then handed over to South Korean authorities at 9.12am on Wednesday morning in Panjin, a Chinese city on the northeast coast of North Korea.

The arrest is significant because North Korea is not known to have any economic ties with China, and it is unusual for a North Korean defector to ever be recaptured in China.

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North Korea has long been known to have agents operating in China in pursuit of defectors and, according to the UN refugee agency, 40,000 North Koreans escaped to China in 2017, up 37% from 2016.

However, more than half of those returned to North Korea returned on their own in 2016-17, prompting international outrage and calls for global action. North Korea has in the past sent such citizens home to face trial for treason, and some security experts say Pyongyang would want to go much further than such a token reprisal.

It is also unlikely that North Korea, notoriously hostile to the South, would normally allow an infiltration of defectors into its own territory.

“What this really speaks to is the desperation for food and resources for the North Korean regime and what they are willing to do to survive,” said Hannah Lee, a researcher at Australia’s Foreign Policy Centre.

The north-east of China, where the South Korean and Chinese militaries carry out regular joint drills in border areas, has been the scene of numerous defections from North Korea in recent years. A Japanese man and two German tourists defected to China from the border city of Shenyang in 2015, and a man who worked in a seafood processing plant in Harbin was found in 2003.

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