North Korea and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region: Grim parallels in two of the most repressive parts of the world

On 3 March the China-focused information platform SupChina published translated extracts from a 16-hour discussion in a “room” on the app Clubhouse called “Is there a concentration camp in Xinjiang?” The room attracted an incredible 4,000 participants, but the truly remarkable thing about the conversation was that it brought together Uyghurs and Han Chinese people – both inside and outside China – in a space momentarily beyond government restrictions.

Reliable information about what is happening to the Uyghurs is heavily censored in China; the only news about the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is from state media, which paints Uyghurs as either potential terrorists or grateful recipients of the government’s “re-education” programme.

Before it was banned, Clubhouse briefly provided a brand-new channel for open discussion of one of the most sensitive issues in China today. SupChina described the conversation as “historic,” and it was; historic, moving, tragic and illuminating.

A grim parallel

Yet the extract that most caught my eye wasn’t about the “Uyghur issue” per se but about the similarities between Xinjiang and a different place altogether: North Korea. It’s worth including the extract in its entirety:

The children of North Koreans, like me, really are refugees. They are treated very badly because after they are caught, they can be sent back to North Korea. And then we will be sent to a concentration camp for reform. So, the Xinjiang issue feels very close. In a few years, we may also be treated like people in Xinjiang. I am very worried about this problem. And I wanted to say something because I don’t know if there are other Koreans or other people like me in this group.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard comparisons between the Uyghur Region and North Korea. They share many grim features: mass arbitrary detention; strict limits on access to information; zero freedom of expression; aggressive suppression of religion; torture, sexual violence and forced labour. Both human rights crises have been described as crimes against humanity.

But the Clubhouse room comment was the first time I had heard the comparison made by someone who arguably has a better understanding than most of the horrors of these violations – the child of North Koreans living in China.

In spite of its international obligations, the Chinese government persists in treating North Korean escapees as “economic migrants” and forcibly returns them to their country. Once back in North Korea, escapees face detention, torture, forced labour and even death. No wonder that to this Clubhouse user, “The Xinjiang issue feels very close”.

Of course, there are many differences between the two situations as well. In the Uyghur Region there is an ethnic factor which is missing in North Korea. Although Han Chinese people living in XUAR are also subject to tighter surveillance than elsewhere, it is a world away from the restrictions placed on Uyghurs and other Muslim-majority ethnic groups in the region who live with the possibility of being arbitrarily detained at any time.

The path to this point has also been very different: for example, in terms of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), in North Korea there are virtually no religious buildings aside from a few “show” churches for foreign visitors in the capital and temples which are tourist sites rather than functioning places of worship.

In other words, the North Korean regime has never allowed space for religious practice: since the Kim dynasty demands complete devotion, all other beliefs, including religious beliefs, are treated as threats to the regime.

In contrast, in the Uyghur Region, although there has never been full FoRB, religious practice and identity has been an important part of Uyghur culture. In the past, the landscape was full of mosques and sites of pilgrimage, and religious leaders played an important role in many communities. There were also non-religious Uyghurs as well as Uyghur Christians, and Han Chinese Christians, who mostly met in small “house” churches. Under the current crackdown, however, thousands of mosques have been destroyed; imams have been sentenced to long prison terms, and religious dress, materials and observance are interpreted as signs of “religious extremism.”

In North Korea reading the Bible can land you in prison; in XUAR downloading Islamic teachings can put you in a camp. Neither believer gets a fair trial, or any hope of appeal.  

A common obstacle

In a bitter twist, for both these human rights crises the international community is blocked from taking action by the same entity: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). To be sure, it is Pyongyang which is perpetrating human rights abuses in North Korea. Yet would these atrocities have continued for so many decades if it had not been for the Chinese government’s support of the North Korean regime? It is the CCP (among others) that has blocked action to address North Korea’s crimes against humanity through the UN, and forcibly repatriated unknown numbers of North Korean escapees to face detention, torture and death. The CCP has not merely turned a blind eye to human rights violations in North Korea: it has aided, and protected, the perpetrators.

February’s Clubhouse room was an opportunity for Uyghurs to share their experiences and their suffering with thousands of people who were hearing perhaps for the first time about something happening in their own country. For many, it was a moment of awakening.

It’s time for us to wake up too. To wake up to the shouts of North Koreans, Uyghurs, Falun Gong practitioners, Christian pastors, Tibetan Buddhists and human rights defenders. The CCP leaders have blood on their hands, the blood of their own people, as well as those beyond China’s borders.   

By CSW’s Asia Team