A North Korean Refugee Dilemma
Image Credit: Flickr / yeowatzup

A North Korean Refugee Dilemma


They beat paths worn solid by so many who came before them.  Some who sought riches and returned. Smugglers. Bootleggers. Shadowy government agents. Others who left with no intention of retracing their steps – at least willingly. People in flight for their lives. Those escaping repression. Some even starving.

As the latest to fall under the full glare of the international radar wearing their boot prints into this fertile ground, they are deemed outlaws at home, personas non grata on the other side – placed somewhere amid the sorrows of the latter category. Having slipped across their country’s forbidden frontier into China, likely in bitter winter temperatures, they bore a familiar hope: to reach South Korea. For they are North Koreans – defectors in pursuit of the promised land.

Or they were until disaster struck.

Like an estimated 5,000 others annually, their break was curtailed in China when they were caught in the net of local police. The 30-plus group – reportedly including the elderly and with women with children – were quickly detained, taken away and reportedly held in the Chinese city of Shenyang with a gloomily uncertain fate dangling over their heads.

Treated by China as economic migrants rather than refugees, they now face forcible repatriation to North Korea – a process China routinely carries out, activists say, in flagrant violation of its commitments under United Nations conventions and protocol to protect refugees.

More ominous is what awaits them on the other side. The harsh lot for defectors from North Korea, argue the activists, is almost certain punishment that can include consignment to political concentration camps, forced labor, or public execution.

“China knows that forcing these refugees back to North Korea will mean certain torture, certain imprisonment and even execution, yet they continue to label them economic migrants, and not refugees,” says Suzanne Scholte, chairman of the U.S.-based North Korea Freedom Coalition.

News of their situation had been gaining steady worldwide coverage over the course of last month after their detention was first revealed. Though the deal struck between the United States and North Korea that saw the North agree to a nuclear moratorium may draw attention away from their plight, the momentum of a fresh source of support appears determined to drill the story into the global conscience.

For at no time in recent history has the issue of China’s treatment of North Korean refugees attracted such a strong show of government and public support in the South. Though some insist the public showing is still paltry compared to protests against perceived slights by the likes of former colonial masters Japan, President Lee Myung-bak’s government has taken the unprecedented step of taking the case to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Noisy protests have taken place outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul – including stars of South Korean popular culture who are familiar to people in China due to their popularity on the other side of the Yellow Sea. And a member of the

National Assembly embarked on a hunger strike outside the Chinese mission in the Southern capital.

“Usually, South Koreans don’t care that much about the refugees,” says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea specialist based at Kookmin University in Seoul. “Now, we have a massive demonstration in front of the Chinese Embassy – usually, such noisy crowds harass only U.S. diplomats. It’s unusual, and reflects the changes in perception of both China and North Korea.”

The international organization mandated to intervene in refugee emergencies has also come under the microscope. Not for the first time in recent years, some see the response of the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, which urged the Chinese government to adhere to international law governing the recognition of refugees, as insufficient. But the body issued a statement following the detention of the refugees, saying it “has been in communication with the Chinese authorities about this group and called upon the Chinese government to uphold the non-refoulement principle,” adding, “UNHCR is encouraging all parties concerned to find a viable humanitarian solution in the best interest of these individuals and ensure their safety.”

Asked to comment further, Andrej Mahecic, the UNHCR’s senior communications officer covering East Asia and the Pacific, told The Diplomat the agency responded to the current situation playing out in China “the moment we learned about this group,” approaching the Chinese authorities “both verbally and in writing” in order to clarify their circumstances. “We don’t have access to the North Koreans at the border area in China and do not have firsthand information,” Mahecic insisted.

Perhaps tellingly, however, in its earlier statement, the UNHCR didn’t refer to the defectors as “refugees” but “detained North Koreans.” And Mahecic, dealing more generally with criticism directed at the agency, said the UNHCR continues to remind the Chinese authorities of its “overriding concern” that people should not be forced back to North Korea “until their need for protection is properly assessed.”

Critics aren’t convinced.

“The North Korean refugee emergency is arguably the most urgent in the world today,” wrote Robert Park, a Korean-American activist who spent time in North Korean custody in 2010, in a recent commentary. “Yet over the past decade, as tens of thousands of refugees have been repatriated, the United Nations has done nothing to help. Stemming from an unwillingness to confront China, it has chosen to obey China's prohibition to go to the Sino-North Korea border rather than fulfill its mandate to protect the refugees.”

Bill Rich
February 9, 2013 at 13:36

How many articles about Palistinian refugees mentioned those from DPRK or anywhere else ? All of them must be hypocrits and double standard.

March 8, 2012 at 23:04

did i just detect a hint of hypocracy and double standards here?the plight of thousands of defecting north koreans is certainly deplorable. but r we forgetting the pain millions of palestine refugees have to endure? and that gas been since 1947. the international community has passed the resolution condemning isrealis, which british and other american allies have been supporting. but all those who r critising china for their indiffernce or even brutal treatment of those north refugees, pl guess who wont sign off on that resolution. yes, americans. they have ambushed the un and other institutions for resolving this refugee crisis for past 50 years. and i havent heard so much as a whimper from ur justice fighters.
also, i have to take issue with the assertion that The shame of China. Beijing should be ashamed. No need to send envoys to Syria when they can’t even uphold the basic human rights of these refugees when it is within their means to do so. Upside down “leaders”. They have no moral high ground in foreign diplomacy with such callous disregard for human lives.
well said, so maybe u might have better moral compass if u go survey the shiites in saudi arabia and bahrain. those r also oppressed people and when they started uttering their displeasure and then faced the brutal crack-down last spring, where were all american democracy and human rights rhetorics? pl, go ask them, who has been the worst human rights violators.
yes, on one hand,some north korean defectors are crying out for help. and since its on chinese border, every freedom and human hound dogs just cant wait to pounce on it. they even cite the syrian crisis and china’s standing on that issue as the valid basis for flinging the dirt at chinese. but i d hesitate to jump the gun here because strategic interest trumps anything else. if u need evidence, pl pay attention to what america has done for the past 100 years. that should please u since only polical crap u r attuned to is american rhetorics and their selfless “good deeds” they have forced on the rest of the world.

Kang Su-dan
March 8, 2012 at 15:39

The shame of China. Beijing should be ashamed. No need to send envoys to Syria when they can’t even uphold the basic human rights of these refugees when it is within their means to do so. Upside down “leaders”. They have no moral high ground in foreign diplomacy with such callous disregard for human lives.

March 8, 2012 at 15:20

Even if South Korea clears there mines theres still the issue of mines on the NK side. Considering the DMZ is the worlds most militarised zone dont think until unification or even many years after the unification that route would be transversable simply.

The DMZ has been a no man zone for over 70 years now. Its on the verge of becoming a UN heritage site.

March 8, 2012 at 09:29

““Of course, China won’t budge, because it does not want to create a dangerous precedent,” says Lankov, the professor. “Chinese authorities don’t want China to become an easy transit route for the North Korean refugees whose numbers will increase dramatically if the Chinese lifts numerous restrictions on their travel to the South. China generally turns a blind eye to the North Korean refugees, as long as they keep a low profile. But it does not want to make their transit too easy.””

^^ that there lies the problem, the south is full of mines, china route is far easier if the restrictions are loosened IE: streaming million and the effects of it on diplomatic relations with nk. maybe south korea should clear the mine field and welcome their brother and sisters?

Frankie Fook-lun Leung
March 8, 2012 at 04:31

The US Congressional Committee on China is organizing a hearing on this subject. You can check out their web-site to find out what those who attend the hearing say.

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