A North Korean Refugee Dilemma

Recent Features

Features | Society | East Asia

A North Korean Refugee Dilemma

China says they are migrants, and the U.N. refers to them as detained. Either way, fleeing North Koreans could face forced labor or execution if sent back.

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.”

Tim Peters, who heads up Helping Hands Korea, an organization that helps defectors make their way from China to South Korea through third countries such as Mongolia and Thailand, delivers a damning report card on the UNHCR last 15 years dealing with the North Korean refugee situation in China. “The image that emerges,” he says, “is one of extreme diplomatic caution, staff who seem habitually preoccupied with maintaining the status quo and protecting UNHCR office space in Beijing, not to mention their own career trajectory in the U.N.”

On the other hand, the North Korea Freedom Coalition’s Scholte believes fingers should be pointing squarely in the direction of China. “It’s easy to blame the UNHCR,” she says, “but it’s not fair to blame them when China is the one that has tied their hands by refusing to recognize that the North Koreans entering China illegally are in fact refugees in terrible danger and terribly vulnerable because of China.”

But seasoned North Korea watchers don’t see a shift in China’s position any time soon.

“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.”

Yet some reports place marauding North Korean agents inside China, helping the Chinese authorities ferret out defectors moving within their borders. “Consider this,” says Scholte. “China won’t allow the UNHCR – whose sole purpose to be in China is to help refugees – access to North Koreans seeking asylum, but freely allows North Korean assassins freedom to roam around China murdering humanitarian workers and hunting down refugees.”

Seoul Train, a 2005 documentary about the underground railway, recorded the stories and actual moments of capture by Chinese authorities of a number of North Korean defectors.

The film – in which both Scholte and Peters appeared – demonstrated the role of the UNHCR and, more troubling, the unwavering position of China. In it, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman underscored the government’s then firm stance that the North Korean defectors weren’t refugees but economic migrants.

Little has changed. Following the detention of the latest set of North Koreans, a foreign ministry spokesman repeated a familiar message, quoted by international media as saying that “these people are not refugees. They have illegally entered China because of economic reasons."

Still, Seoul Train’s earlier expose of the situation ended on a somewhat happy note. Some of the defectors, after heavy international lobbying, were released by the Chinese authorities and made it to Seoul. Others, however, weren’t so fortuitous, suffering a fate which those behind Seoul Train later described as “wiped off the face of the earth.”

Which path lies in store for those currently held in Chinese custody remains uncertain. Perhaps prescriptive, reports have surfaced of as many as nine already having been repatriated to the North. There are figured to be as many as 200,000 in total hiding in China. The path to the promises of a better life in the South is a precarious and often expensive one. So far, somewhere in the region of 22,000 have made it. Though the rate has been increasing in recent years – the latest estimates place 2,500 per year landing in Seoul – they would still seem to be outstripped by the reputed 5,000 marched back to the North on an annual basis.

It seems for now, at least, that those well-trodden trails pounded by North Koreans in flight will be more than matched by those formed by footprints pointing ominously toward what lies in wait where they came from.

Bryan Kay is a freelance journalist who covers the Koreas for the Christian Science Monitor and the Sunday Herald in Scotland. He has also written for the Independent on Sunday, the New Statesman and the International Herald Tribune.