NEW YORK, March 29 (UPI) -- North Korean defectors knew in advance of Kim Jong Un's surprise visit to Beijing because of a robust network of informants in northeast China, a U.S.-based North Korean dissident told UPI on Thursday.
Ma Young-ae, who defected from Pyongyang in 2000 only months after a historic summit between the leaders of North and South Korea, said she "already knew" by Sunday that Kim was on his first visit to China because one of the missionaries she had mentored had been detained for hours along with three North Korean defectors, all women.
For Ma, the lengths Chinese authorities took to shield Kim from the public were signs of his arrival.
The women continue to be held in Chinese custody because they had no papers, she said.
"My friend sent me a text message. 'Pray for them'," Ma said, adding the women had been receiving assistance from her friend before they were detained.
The group, merely at the wrong place at the wrong time, includes a teenage North Korean girl, who faces an uncertain fate in Chinese detention and in North Korea after repatriation.
The Chinese authorities are holding them at an unofficial ransom, Ma said.
"Among the women, there are those with family resettled in South Korea," the defector said, adding the Chinese are asking for $30,000 to $50,000 from relatives in return for the women's release.
The dangers the arrested North Koreans face are one of the less noted consequences of a summit that is bringing China and North Korea closer together.
China does not recognize North Koreans as refugees, although Beijing is a signatory to the United Nations' refugee convention.
Ma said she is preparing to petition U.S. President Donald Trump to pressure China on its treatment of North Koreans fleeing their country.
The activist, who runs a successful Korean food business in New York, said she is worried the meeting between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping marks a serious setback for Seoul.
"South Korea was struck in the back of the head," Ma said.
Seoul had been leading discussions with the North and had mediated the agreement to hold U.S.-North Korea talks, while China, North Korea's most important partner, was left out of the picture.
The South Korean government, including President Moon Jae-in's office, reportedly told local media they could not confirm Kim's presence on a train to China.
Ma, who has met Trump and former U.S. President Barack Obama and has been recognized for her work in human rights, said she is skeptical of South Korea's capacity to handle a mediating role between the United States and North Korea.
"Why does South Korea intervene?" she said. "They are trying so hard to grab the North's hand."
The activist said she is worried about Moon's policy of warming to North Korea, and that she is concerned about reports North Korea asked for the repatriation of 12 North Korean waitresses who had left a Pyongyang-operated restaurant in China in 2016.
"That is a threat to the lives of the 31,000 defectors in the South," Ma said. "To those on the outside, North Korea is an unimaginable country."
Ma, like scores of defectors who left before and after her, was tortured after she was arrested in China.
She was trying to make her way to the South after she realized North Korea was depriving people of economic reform in order for the ruling Kim family to stay in power.
"I was beaten. My collarbone broke," Ma said. "In my right shoulder, I still have chronic pain. When I move it, you can hear a cracking noise."
Ma, who is a noted member of Greater New York's Korean American community for her activism and entrepreneurship, said she will not rest until nuclear weapons development and human rights violations end on the Korean Peninsula.
"In North Korea, even if you have eyes, you pretend you cannot see; if you have ears, you pretend you cannot hear; and if you have a tongue, you pretend you cannot speak out," she said.
"Resolve the human rights issue first."