China’s North Korean Refugee Dilemma


Two years ago, the Chinese government unveiled an audacious two-year plan to improve its tarnished human rights image. Last month as the National Human Rights Action Plan of China came to an end, the head of China’s State Council Information Office (SCIO), Wang Chen claimed they had accomplished everything they’d wanted in the field of human rights. “By the end of 2010, all measures stipulated in the Action Plan had been put into practice with all goals achieved and tasks fulfilled,” he said.

But just exactly on what findings Mr. Chen bases such an inflated assessment is somewhat ambiguous.

Covered extensively by the Western media, the case of Ai Wei Wei is just one of

a whole laundry list

 of activists and dissidents who have been detained since February this year. Although the Action Plan saw some progress in the protection of basic economic and social rights for its Chinese citizens, its objectives regarding civil and political rights are yet to be fulfilled—especially for its minorities. While many in the West have heard of human rights issues in Xinjiang and Tibet, few know about North Korean defectors in China, whose plight is one of the many inconvenient truths Beijing has tried to conceal for decades.

A famine that swept through North Korea in the ’90s pushed many North Koreans over the border to an industrial region of northeastern China. Given the severe living conditions in North Korea, many continue to cross the loosely guarded border—despite dire consequences resulting from their capture.

Estimates of North Koreans currently hiding in China range from 30,000 to 50,000. With Beijing’s explicit policy of sending undocumented North Korean defectors back across the border to face incarceration, torture, and even execution, “hiding” is the appropriate term to describe their living conditions. Of course, the chances of acquiring official documentation as a North Korean defector are slim, since the Chinese government refuses to grant them refugee status.

Since China is not a safe-haven, the end goal for many North Korean defectors is South Korea. To make this trip, many of them turn to for-profit brokers. Without any recourse to the law, rogue brokers often exploit defectors,  approximately 75 percent of whom are women. According to the 2010 annual report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, 90 percent of these women fall prey to trafficking syndicates.

It is widely believed that the majority of these women are forced into sex industries like brothels or Internet-sex operations. In reality, most of them are sold into coerced marriages with Chinese farmers. In northeastern China—where men outnumber women by as much as 14 to one—North Korean women are sold for between US$300 to $3,000, according to a report by the Committee For Human Rights in North Korea. A North Korean defector is quoted in a Radio Free Asia report, saying that a 23-year-old North Korean woman “was confined to a house where she was constantly sexually assaulted by her husband, her father-in-law, and her brother-in-law.”

China’s Nationality Law guarantees citizenship, and the household registration hukou for offspring born of at least one Chinese national. According to a Human Rights Watch report, many local governments refuse to grant hukou to children whose mothers are undocumented, forcing them into “a stateless limbo.” In any case, Chinese fathers often choose not to register such children anyways for fear of exposing their undocumented mothers to the authorities. As a result, these children lose out on free education and other public benefits.

Since North Korean mothers frequently get repatriated anyways or abandon their families for South Korea, many of these stateless children become orphans, with their single Chinese fathers often unable or unwilling to take care of them. The number of such de jure orphans is believed to be in the tens of thousands, and with little social support, they are also vulnerable to being trafficked. Even if they are found by human rights groups, they lack paperwork to prove their North Korean origin, which makes it legally difficult for any other government to grant them asylum or protection.

During the evaluation of the Action Plan, the head of SCIO said, “the cause of human rights in China has entered a new stage,” and indeed it has. In 2009, the Chinese government has increased its campaign of forced repatriation. According to a Sydney Morning Herald report, Chinese authorities pay weekly visits to every household located near the Chinese-North Korean borders to ferret North Koreans out of hiding. In addition, Chinese authorities place bounties on North Korean defectors, encouraging Chinese citizens to inform on them.

Due to the nature of punishments reserved for returned North Koreans, international law identifies these defectors as “refugee sur place.” The Chinese government’s policy of repatriating these “refugees sur place” contradicts its obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. Parties to the Convention are obliged to abide by the principle of “non-refoulement,” which says “[n]o contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.” Furthermore, China refuses to permit the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to operate along its northeastern border with North Korea in defiance of Article 35 of the Refugee Convention. People’s Republic of China has been party to the Convention and Protocol since 1982.

Beijing deems North Korea a critical buffer zone between itself and South Korea, which hosts a large U.S. military presence. Were China to start granting refugee status to North Korean defectors, there could be a mass population outflow. Beijing may fear this could lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime and cause an onslaught of regional insecurity.

Charles Armstrong, a professor of Korean studies at Columbia University, however, believes this fear is “overblown.” In an email, Armstrong identified the problem North Korean migrants might pose as more economic than political. Ending the system of forced repatriation would not topple Kim Jong Il. “China sees their border with North Korea as similar to the U.S.-Mexico border:the boundary between a very poor country and a relatively affluent one,” he said in an email.

From a purely economic perspective, Beijing is understandably concerned by the potential repercussions of an influx of poor immigrants. The U.S. has similar concerns about the economic effects of illegal aliens, but deported Mexicans don’t return home with the prospect of facing a firing squad.  

The Human Rights Action Plan of 2009, however tame it might have been, was surely a step in the right direction. Mr. Chen’s evaluation of the Plan was indeed a lip service to a blatant underachievement. But it signals that China is at least beginning to take an interest in human rights issue. Apparently, a new four-year plan is being drafted. Hopefully, this one will be more than just rhetoric and give North Korean defectors a chance to come out of hiding.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s