Save North Korean Refugees Day, which falls on 24 September, aims to highlight the terrible trials faced by North Korean refugees in China.
It also marks the day, 36 years ago, that China became a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, an agreement the country continues to violate through its treatment of North Korean escapees.
China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees is illegal as it violates the fundamental international humanitarian principle of ‘non-refoulement’, which prohibits receiving countries from returning refugees to a country where they would likely face persecution due to their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
And yet, that is exactly what they are being sent back to: North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive regimes, referred to by the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry as “a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” in terms of human rights violations. CSW’s 2016 report previously revealed that deported escapees regularly face execution, torture, arbitrary detention, deliberate starvation, illegal cavity searches, forced abortions, and other sexual violence at the hands of the North Korean authorities.
Reasons for ‘Defection’
While CSW’s latest report found that the number of people fleeing North Korea has fallen slightly in recent years, the desire for escape from Kim Jong Un’s brutal regime remains unsurprisingly strong among a large proportion of the population.
The desire for escape from Kim Jong Un’s brutal regime remains unsurprisingly strong among a large proportion of the population.
The act of leaving North Korea is often referred to as ‘defection’, and those that flee are called ‘defectors.’ Despite this, it seems more appropriate to refer to these individuals as escapees or refugees, as the term defector presupposes some form of political motivation.
People flee North Korea for many reasons, however CSW’s found that principal motivations for escape have changed over the past decade. In a series of interviews conducted with North Korean escapees, most respondents suggested that the principal reason for fleeing the country in 2007 was to escape dire economic situations such as starvation. While this remains a key motivator, respondents believe that it has since been surpassed by political reasons and economic or educational opportunities for themselves or their children as the main reasons for escape, suggesting that North Koreans are no longer just interested in surviving, but in living a life of freedom.
No Safe Haven
Escaping North Korea is extremely difficult. Tightening border security and increasing border surveillance are pushing up the price of facilitating escape, and those that do choose to flee are subject to unimaginable horrors. One escapee, Yeonmi Park, was just thirteen years-old when she witnessed her mother’s rape at the hands of human traffickers as the two of them attempted to flee to China. The fact that people are choosing to face such extreme hardships and costs in order to get out of the country is indicative of the extent of the horrors they face in North Korea.
While many North Koreans attempt to reach South Korea or other countries, for a large number China is the first nation they reach, but it is no safe haven.
China views refugees as illegal economic migrants and therefore routinely deports them back to North Korea. In 2014, the UN Commission of Inquiry Report on North Korea The practice has continued since the publication of the COI’s report; for example in November 2017, ten defectors including a four year-old child, were forcibly repatriated.
The North Korea Freedom Coalition estimates that over eighty percent of North Korean escapees carry poison in order to kill themselves if they are caught by Chinese authorities. They would rather die than be forcibly returned to North Korea. It is also estimated that over eighty percent of North Korea females are subjected to human trafficking because of China’s policy.
The Chinese authorities have also cracked down on those trying to help escapees. According to a research paper by Ji Hae Oh and Soo Hyang Kim of Handong University, dozens of South Korean Christian missionaries who helped North Koreans in China have been deported. This represents a clear concerted effort to isolate and silence escapees.
CSW’s 2018 report found that whereas in many cases repatriated North Koreans used to be sent to labour training camps for a few months before being released, they are now sent directly to long-term re-education or concentration camps as part of an ever hardening policy under Kim Jong Un. Conditions in these camps have been compared to Auschwitz in the past, and reports of the regular execution and torture of prisoners suggest that this is no exaggeration. Escapees who are or become Christians are at a particularly high risk of imprisonment and torture if deported.
China’s policy of forced repatriation is made particularly frustrating by the fact that North Korean escapees have a place to go for immediate resettlement as they are citizens of South Korea under Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic of Korea Constitution, and that the United States and other countries have expressed a willingness to accept refugees for resettlement. This highlights that the lack of respect for the human rights of North Koreans extends beyond the North Korean regime to the government of China.
The world cannot wait
While some may be hopeful that Kim Jong Un’s recent summits with Moon Jae-In and Donald Trump will lead to positive changes in the lives of North Koreans, the disappointing side-lining of human rights issues at these summits makes this less likely. Until the human rights of North Koreans are fully respected, thousands will continue to flee the country and face the many hardships this entails.
Until the human rights of North Koreans are fully respected, thousands will continue to flee the country and face the many hardships this entails.
The world cannot wait for Kim Jong Un’s regime to make these changes. It is therefore vital to call on the Chinese government to end their policy of repatriating North Korean refugees and honour international treaty obligations so that no escapee is forced to return and suffer the horrific treatment of the North Korean authorities.
Today, the North Korea Freedom Coalition is calling on organisations and individuals from around the world to deliver a letter of appeal to Chinese President Xi Jinping to stop repatriating refugees. CSW will be delivering that letter to the Chinese embassy today.
By Ellis Heasley, CSW’s Public Affairs Officer