The fate of seven North Korean defectors captured by Chinese authorities is hanging in the balance, prompting horror among family members who have already defected to the South, demonstrations by NGOs and a prominent defector and comments from Seoul’s Foreign Minister.

The group, which reportedly escaped from North Korea only to be captured by Chinese police in Liaoning province – including a nine-year-old girl and two teenagers – face forced repatriation to North Korea. If sent back to North Korea, they would be subject to forced labor, likely torture and possibly even execution, activists say.

China considers North Korean defectors economic migrants, refuses them refugee status and frequently returns them to their country.

For South Korea, which counts China as both its top trade partner and a key player in North Korea denuclearization negotiations, the issue of defectors captured by Chinese law enforcement is a tricky one.

“The issue of North Koreans who have fled and are trying to find their way to South Korea is a very, very sensitive one,” South Korean Foreign Ministry Kang Kyung-wha told foreign reporters on Friday. “It also requires very delicate discussions with the host country.”

Their best chance now is for the world to learn of their plight and for quiet diplomacy in China to do its work, civic activists familiar with their case say.

Activists swing into action

“One is a nine-year-old, there is an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old and others are in their 40s and 50s,” Sun-mi Jung, a South Korean attorney and member of Seoul-based NGO Lawyers for Human Rights and the Unification of Korea, a body which has taken up the case, told Asia Times.

The names have not been released. If they were, their family members in North Korea could face punishment, Jung said.

Four of those in detention in China have relatives in the South, added Jung. All are frantic. “They cannot sleep , they cannot eat,” Jung said. “They call me at night, they call me at dawn.”

One family member, a sister, has been hospitalized in Seoul with a stress-related condition, she added.

On Tuesday, a demonstration was held outside the Chinse embassy in Seoul. As well as family members, it was attended by Thae Young-ho, formerly a diplomat in Pyongyang’s embassy in London, who is arguably the most prominent North Korean defector in South Korea.

Although the demonstrators tried to have a dialog with embassy staff, they were refused entry, Jung said. The Chinese embassy in Seoul did not respond to Asia Times’ calls for comment on Friday.

The best chance

The best opportunity to compel China to hand the defectors over to South Korea, rather than North Korea, may be back-door diplomacy, backed by public pressure.

Jung said her organization has, on two previous occasions, managed to rally enough support that Chinese authorities released captured North Korean defectors, rather than repatriating them.

Her NGO has been sending a series of letters to various governments and international bodies pleading for intervention. They are also seeking a dialog with South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in and Kang on the issue.

“Sometimes North Koreans who are arrested in China are able to get out,” said Seokeel Park, who heads the Seoul office of Liberty in North Korea (LINK), an NGO that is not involved in the current case but which does help North Koreans to flee their country and to re-settle in South Korea.

“Sometimes quiet diplomacy works – it could be the South Korean or other interested, concerned governments – the US, Germany or the EU.”

Foreign Minister Kang appeared to admit that a hush-hush diplomatic process was underway.

“I will not get into detail,” she said. “We are well aware and are mobilizing all diplomatic resources to ensure they are safe and are not returned to North Korea involuntarily.”

Defections, harsh sanctions

Jung said there were fears among family members that if repatriated, the defectors could be executed, as could their relatives, on the principle of collective punishment.

But execution is not certain. In fact, the escapees’ legal fate within their own country is dependent upon several factors.

“It depends on what the North Korean authorities accuse them of doing, but this is quite a unique case as it has been publicized,” Park said. “They will be investigated using what would be considered, by international standards, torture, and will face forced labor – that is standard.

“The type of facility they are sent to, and the length of their terms, depends on what the authorities accuse them of and whether the punishment can be mitigated by bribery.”

Even so, since Kim Jong Un took over the leadership of North Korea following the death of this father Kim Jong Il in 2011, defecting has become harder, Park said, noting increased border security on both sides of the China-North Korea border, including motion detectors and CCTV.

In North Korea, there is more changing of border guard deployments, making it harder to bribe them. “It is harder, risker and more expensive,” he said.

Prices paid to “brokers” – professionals, often defectors themselves, who extract North Koreans from their country for a fee – have also risen. Park said just to cross the border now costs upwards of $10,000 per person.

In total, some 32,467 North Koreans have defected to South Korea, according to the Ministry of Reunification, but since 2011, their numbers have been declining.