SEOUL - Pyongyang's agents over the past decade abducted about 200 Chinese citizens as part of a campaign to stop people from fleeing North Korea, a news report said Tuesday.
The Chinese of ethnic Korean descent had been helping refugees who had fled across the border, Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, adding they were abducted to North Korea and jailed there.
Beijing had never officially sought the repatriation of its citizens because of its "special relationship" with Pyongyang, the paper said.
Chosun said the kidnappings by North Korean agents or border guards occurred mostly in Chinese frontier towns beginning in the late 1990s.
It said the figure was based on data that a support group for refugees, the Committee for Democratisation of North Korea, had secured from the government of Changbai prefecture in China's northeastern province of Jilin.
China also operates a widely criticised policy of repatriating the refugees themselves as economic migrants, even though they can face harsh punishment back home.
It fought for the North during the 1950-1953 Korean War, and remains its sole major ally and most important trade partner and energy supplier.
"The Chinese government views this kidnapping issue not from the humanitarian perspective but from the bloodily tied relationship with North Korea," one unidentified ethnic Korean in China told Chosun.
Almost all those North Koreans fleeing hunger or repression cross first to China. Many travel on to Southeast Asian nations in hopes of securing eventual resettlement in South Korea.
Robert King, the nominee for US envoy on human rights in North Korea, said this month he would press China for better treatment of the refugees.
Almost 17,000 North Koreans have arrived in the South since the end of the Korean War.
The vast majority have come in recent years, with arrivals growing steadily, from 1,138 in 2002 to 2,809 last year. Officials expect some 3,000 this year.