Just breaking... a week ago, actually, but breaking on my news feed anyway. I just came across this article from Shanghaiist, a link in a reporting trail leading back to Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun. According to the report, China has ended, or at least suspended, their longstanding practice of sending North Korean defectors passing through China back to North Korea. One quoted Chinese official, lacking name or location, holds that this is at least partly a response to being kept out of the loop on North Korea's failed missile test earlier this month.
Whatever the reason, though, this is huge. China is, after exiting North Korea itself, the biggest obstacle between defectors and freedom in South Korea or the West. Being sent back to North Korea means certain torture and possible execution. According to the Chinese official in Liaonang province quoted by the Shimbun- a province bordering North Korea- "If refugees are sent back, that's the end of their lives. We can't ignore it." The threat of being caught by China is a big stumbling block in the logistics of escaping North Korea. If the threat of repatriation is gone, that is certain to increase the flow of refugees not only leaving North Korea, but making it to South Korea as well.
Now, China does have a way of saying one thing and doing another. Hopefully, this is not one of those times. However, earlier this month, in the time leading up to the launch, China allowed five defectors who had been trapped in the South Korean embassy in Beijing since 2009 to proceed to Seoul.
The reported change in tone comes too late for the 31 refugees who had been repatriated in March, despite a global campaign for their release. But hopefully, those 31 are the last 31.