SEOUL, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- North Korean security officers are secretly crossing into China to arrest North Korean defectors who once worked as government officials in Pyongyang.
A source who spoke to South Korean news outlet Daily NK on the condition of anonymity said the officers are part of a North Korea task force affiliated with Pyongyang's National Security Agency.
The task force includes three officers who have traveled to the Chinese cities of Shenyang, Yanji and Beijing. Once in China, they launch search missions, carrying with them photographs of North Korean escapees and asking locals whether they can identify the defectors.
The source said the task force also makes copies of the photographs and has distributed them to North Korean consulates around China, North Korea-operated restaurants and at trading firms.
North Korea agents have asked ethnic Koreans in China for their help in finding the defectors, the source added.
"The task force operates in secret, and must locate the runaway cadres right away," the source said.
The task force agents, too, are risking their lives, as their safety is not guaranteed if they return to North Korea empty-handed, the source said, adding such a small number of agents on assignment are unprecedented. Pyongyang has in the past dispatched larger task forces.
North Korea also has been stepping up the repatriation of its nationals from Russia.
Moscow and Pyongyang signed an agreement on Tuesday that would take measures against "illegal immigrants" on both sides of their border, Yonhap reported.
Nikolai Smorodin, Russia's deputy head of the Federal Migration Service, said the deal was co-signed by the North's Vice Foreign Minister Pak Myong Guk.
According to an official statement from Russia, there are about 10,000 North Koreans residing in the country.
Many are residing illegally, Russia stated, after completing a term of manual labor in the Russian Far East, Khabarovsk Krai and Sakhalin.
A South Korean think tank has said that some Russian companies employ North Koreans as a form of forced labor.