North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, as he paid an unofficial visit to China, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 28, 2018. 

© 2018 KCNA

All day, Park anxiously checked her cell phone, awaiting news of her sister, who was being transported along with six other North Koreans from China’s northern Liaoning province to southern Yunnan province.

Then came the news she dreaded: a text message saying Chinese police had apprehended her sister and two other North Koreans, including a teenager, while they were waiting for a train that day in late March. The other four members of the group briefly hid out in a safe house, but they too were apprehended a few days later.

Today, Park, who only uses her surname for fear of retaliation against relatives living in North Korea, joined a gathering of North Korean exiles and their supporters outside China’s embassy in Seoul, South Korea. The group meets monthly to call on the Chinese government to stop forcibly returning North Korean refugees back across the border to face torture, forced labor, sexual abuse, and worse.

“My sister has only me,” Park said. “And we need to do all we can before China decides to send her back to unimaginable horrors of torture, beatings, threats, and being treated like less than an animal.”

Park has now joined the ranks of North Koreans with relatives or friends detained in China. They implore government officials, journalists, and others for help pressing the Beijing government not to forcibly return her sister and other North Korean refugees.

These seven refugees are the latest victims of China’s evident policy to deter North Koreans from fleeing horrific human rights violations at home. China apprehended at least 41 North Koreans between mid-January and March 2018, on top of more than 100 others between July 2016 and December 2017. Based on information from relatives and other sources, Human Rights Watch believes at least 33 North Korean refugees currently remain detained in China.

If China wants to demonstrate flexibility in addressing sensitive issues on the Korean Peninsula, an obvious step would be to meet with Park and others pleading for their relatives’ lives outside the Seoul embassy, and either provide asylum to North Koreans in China or allow them safe passage to South Korea.