China and its North Korean Refugee Problem

Photography by John Flawed

Recently, China’s policy regarding the repatriation of North Korean refugees has been given greater attention by the international media. Understanding this policy and the dilemma that the refugees pose the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is necessary for anyone seeking to understand the complex relationship between China and the two Koreas.
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In 2011 over 2,737 North Koreans defected to the South while it is estimated that over 23,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the 1953 truce. China commonly serves as one of the first states that North Korean refugees move through as they seek their freedom. While China has been a member of the Executive Committee of the High Commission Program since 1958, it never enacted legislation regarding Refugee Conventions. It has allowed those seeking asylum in China to have their case reviewed at the Beijing office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and remain in China while they are resettled. North Korean refugees are the only exception to this rule and most Western human rights organizations have argued that these refugees have a prima facie claim to be allowed refugee status because they will be sent to labor camps or killed once repatriated to North Korea.

In 1986 China and North Korea signed a bilateral agreement “Mutual Cooperation Protocol for the Work of Maintaining National Security and Social Order in the Border Areas,” in which both nations would work to prevent illegal border crossings from either side. The Chinese government has argued that that the reason North Koreans are denied refugee status is because they have left their country for economic reasons, which is outside the terms of the refugee conventions.1

Article 32 Paragraph 2 of the Chinese Constitution states: “the PRC shall accord the right to protection to those foreigners who demand refuge for political reasons.” Those who are suspected of assisting North Koreans are fined up to 30,000 Yuan (over $ 4,700 US Dollars) while China allows North Koreans who are able to make it to diplomatic offices in China to leave for South Korea via a third country. This is done because China needs to carefully manage its relations with both Koreas. One of China’s chief security concerns is the fear that once the North Korean government collapses there will be a large influx of North Korean refugees in Northeast China. These new refugees could create another ethnic destabilization point within China – like Tibet and Xinjiang.

Often local Chinese officials are willing to look the other way when it comes to the repatriation of North Korean refugees as money trumps politics. Though the local officials cannot risk angering the North Korean government or their own bosses if they become too lax in enforcement. Simon Suh, a Seoul based pastor who organizes one of the underground railroads, said that a payment of $6,000 will appease most Chinese officials who will allow for the release of the refugee and let them continue on their journey on the condition that the case never becomes public. Once the North Korean government becomes aware of the case then the Chinese government is forced to repatriate the refugee.

North Koreans who are repatriated face a three year sentence to a kwan-il-so, a political prisoners' labor camp, where they will likely be tortured and die within the camps. There are other factors that determine the severity of the punishments - the number of times the person had visited China, their own personal background, and whether there were any political motivations in escaping. Citizens that were found not to have any political motivation will likely be sent to a local village labor camp. Those who the state determines to be “political offenders” – citizens that attempt to defect by entering a diplomatic facility or through a third country face a minimum five years of hard labor and will likely be executed for their crimes against the state. Those who assist others in escaping face a sentence of two to seven years of hard labor.2

It is thought that possibly as many as two million people died from starvation during the famine of the 1990s, causing thousands to flood across the border with China. While North Korea did join as a member of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1981, it views its citizens that attempt to flee the country as anti-socialist traitors and criminals.3 In order to address the growing refugee problem Pyongyang has sent more secret police to arrest those attempting to flee, and routinely accuses South Korea of assisting North Korean citizens in escaping to China.4

China treats the North Korean refugees as “illegal economic immigrants” and denies them their status as refugees because if the Chinese government were to call these escapees “refugees” then that would imply the North Korean government was “repressive”. Dr Andrei Lankov, lecturer at Kookmin University, argued that the changes in refugee movement to China stem from the ending of North Korea’s brand of “national Stalinism” meaning that the state is less able to control its subjects, making it easier for them to reach the poorly monitored Chinese border. While the border controls on both sides have been increased they still remain largely unguarded.

Before the famine few North Koreans considered China a viable option to escape to. While there are no reliable numbers as to how many refugees have fled into China it has been estimated that between 10,000 – 40,000 North Koreans are currently hiding in China. Dr Lankov also believes from his own research with defectors that the motivation to leave is rarely over political disagreements with the regime but rather the desire to seek a better economic life in China.

China’s policies towards North Korean refugees are unlikely to change in the near future. Beijing needs North Korea to remain stable while it prepares for its leadership change in 2012 and no amount of pressure from Western nations will compel China to relax its stance on North Korean refugees. Apart from not wanting refugees flooding across its borders en masse, the Chinese government is far more fearful of nuclear proliferation or being thrown into a war because of the actions of the North Korean government. For Beijing that means ensuring that stability is maintained on the Korean peninsula over all other concerns.

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  1. Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland, “The North Korean Refugees as a Human Rights Issue,” The North Korean Refugee Crisis: Human Rights and International Responses, (Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland eds.), U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2006, p. 10. 

  2. Ibid, pp. 17-18. 

  3. Amnesty International, Persecuting the Starving: the Plight of North Koreans Fleeing to China,” 24/03/200, p. 5. 

  4. Jacho Hwang, “Northeast Asia’s Pandora’s Box: North Korean Escapees,” The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 2004, pp. 57-58. 

Posted on April 3, 2012