South Korea must press China more to stop refoulement, experts say
A total of 31,093 North Korean defectors have made it to South Korea since 1998, and every year about a thousand more arrive. The majority travel an estimated 3000 miles across China to reach third countries such as Thailand, Laos, or Mongolia before flying to South Korea.
This route may seem strangely roundabout. After all, there is an ROK consulate in Shenyang, China, not far from the North Korean border, as well as an embassy in Beijing. What is to stop a North Korean from simply entering a South Korean embassy or consulate in China and claiming asylum?
The chief obstacle, in most cases, is Beijing’s policy toward North Korean defectors. China has repeatedly insisted on repatriating defectors to the DPRK, despite serious concerns about how they are treated upon returning.
The South Korean government, however, has also contributed to the situation by accepting refugees who make it to the South without assertively raising the issue of North Korean defectors with China, according to some North Korea watchers and activists.
Joanna Hosaniak, Director of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), says that the situation has deteriorated since Kim Jong Un took power, regardless of which administration has been in power in South Korea.
“And it is unlikely that it would change in the future.”
It is hard to assess the reality of what happens to those who go back to the DPRK – some appear on national television as propaganda figures, some go back to their daily lives – but activists suspect that many are sent to prison camps, facing torture and hard labor.
Baek Cheol-nam (a pseudonym) is a North Korean defector who came to South Korea after years in China. His story highlights the dangers defectors face leaving North Korea, as China continues to monitor and repatriate defectors.
China has been specifically criticized for violating the principle of non-refoulement in Article 33 of the 1951 United Nations Convention, which states that a contracting state should not expel or return a refugee if their life or freedom is risked upon return. Human rights organizations state that defectors should rightfully be granted this status, due to the severe punishment that they face if repatriated.
“According to the South Korean constitution, all people from the Korean peninsula are South Korean citizens”
Baek hails from Hamgyong Province, in the northern part of North Korea near the Chinese border. He had some relatives across the border and in 1997, he crossed the border. Returning to North Korea from China with some money that his relatives had given him, he was caught while crossing the border. He had everything confiscated and was investigated for about twenty days.
Baek, his wife and his two sons tried to cross the Tumen River when his father died. The current was strong and the water was very cold. “I could not feel my legs. My sons were screaming and I felt very helpless.”
They failed to cross, and Baek was separated from his family. Sent to prison, he says that about fifteen people were crammed into a small space of around 9 square meters.
Every week, he would see one or two dead bodies carried out of the room. “People were drinking water from thetoilet. The conditions were awful. People had high fevers and we were given rice and ‘soup’ which was basically salt water. I suffered very badly from malnutrition and when I tried to stand up, I would fall back down because I did not have any energy.”
Most North Korean defectors come through the northern border with China | Photo by Roman Harak
Eventually, he was released.
“They would beat me up and interrogate me, but if I had said that I was going to China, then I would not have been released. I told my wife and my two sons beforehand that if we get caught, no matter what, to deny that we were trying to get to China. I kept telling them I was drunk and somehow crossed the river and that I did not remember.”
In 2013 the UN launched a Commission of Inquiry into North Korean Human Rights, which condemned the collusion between China and North Korea in repatriating defectors and exposed the treatment of defectors in DPRK gulags. The following year, Human Rights Watch accused China of “aiding and abetting in crimes against humanity” by repatriating defectors.
China reportedly allowed some North Koreans to quietly leave for South Korea after the Commission of Inquiry labeled China “an accomplice in crimes against humanity” in 2013, according to Hosaniak.
“This doesn’t mean, however, that there were no larger deportations ongoing, no mistreatment of North Koreans in China, or that the situation on the border was less dangerous at the same time,” she says.
As recently as July of this year, China turned down a request from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to stop forced repatriation of North Korean defectors. In defending the decision, foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang insisted that “North Koreans who illegally cross the Chinese border are not considered refugees.”
China hasn’t always taken such an aggressive approach to repatriating defectors. Up until the mid-90s, the Chinese government turned a blind eye to escapees unless North Korea made a special request, according to the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.
“China should be called out”
China’s indifference was due, in part, to the fact that the number of North Korea defectors was relatively low until the mid-90s, when a mass famine struck the North and the number of defectors crossing into China dramatically increased. The number of North Korean refugees in China reached a peak of around 300,000 in the late-90s, according to estimates from South Korea’s Ministry of Interior and Safety.
Since then, China has followed a consistent policy of repatriating defectors rather than protecting them – likely out of concerns, one expert says, about encouraging more to try their luck.
“[China] refuses to grant North Korean refugees the protection they deserve, as it likely fears that large refugee outflows could destabilize its North Korean neighbor,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
Article 33 of the 1951 United Nations Convention prohibits “refoulement” | Photo by condour
South Korea’s basic policy regarding defectors is to receive any North Korean refugee who comes to the South and accept them as citizens. The government also claims to be “actively engaged in international cooperation for the improvement of human rights in North Korea,” according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.
Despite this, some activists and observers believe that South Korea is not doing enough to confront China about the repatriation of North Korean defectors.
Sokeel Park, the Director of Research and Strategy at Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), said nations have mainly addressed the defector issue through back channels, but he argued that the UN General Assembly should discuss the issue and adopt appropriate economic or political measures to reprimand the PRC.
“China should be called out, and the issue should be elevated,” he says.
The UN Special Rapporteur on DPRK Human Rights has said South Korea’s constitution provides a “constitutional and legal background to engage with China and to call for the attention of these people and the respect of their rights.”
“Because according to the South Korean constitution, all people from the Korean peninsula are South Korean citizens,” Tomás Ojea Quintana told NK News in an interview last year.
The South Korean government, however, has been reluctant to consider the repatriation of North Korean defectors as a humanitarian issue, according to NKHR’s Hosaniak, instead treating the problem as a “fait accompli.” The South Korean government, she argues, has only ever made the defector issue “a small fraction” of overall discussions with China.
Dr. Andrei Lankov, director of the Korea Risk Group, the holding company of NK News, has written that, for ROK authorities, “the refugee problem is driven by a set of pragmatic considerations.”
It is easier, in short, for the ROK government to deal with repatriation issues on a case by case basis – negotiating with the Chinese government to allow safe passage for the few that manage to bypass Chinese security rather than trying to convince authorities to allow safe passage for all refugees in China.
The current South Korean administration under President Moon Jae-in has taken the same stance toward the issue as past administrations, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, officially asking China not to repatriate North Korean defectors since many have families in South Korea.
But Scarlatoiu says that the South Korean government needs to do more.
“I surely hope the current administration will do better than the previous one, by persuading China to grant North Korean refugees the protection extended to them through the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Additional Protocol, to which China is a party,” he said.
JOURNEY TO THE SOUTH
China’s continued repatriation of defectors and South Korea’s reluctance to push the issue more helps explain why North Korean refugees choose to make the circuitous journey to the South by way of embassies in countries like Thailand and Laos.
“I didn’t even consider the option of walking straight into the South Korean embassy in China,” Baek says. “How could I? The embassies and consulates are heavily guarded.”
Scarlatoiu says that “security perimeters” around South Korean embassies and consulates in China “likely to receive North Korean escapees” would make it difficult for a defector to get inside the building.
Even if a defector succeeded, the two countries would then need to reach an agreement for the defector to travel to the South.
China’s strong stance on North Korean defectors, however, means that it is unlikely that the authorities would agree to let North Korean defectors go to South Korea as a standard practice, though some cases do appear to occur from time to time.
“China feels very strongly about the issue, so even if I were to go into a South Korean embassy, there would be no way out,” Baek says.
He says that it is also extremely difficult to get a hold of someone at South Korea’s embassies and consulates in China. He tried to contact the South Korean embassy several times to see if he could meet with someone to gather information before defecting, but was reportedly unable to reach any staff members.
“I didn’t even consider the option of walking straight into the South Korean embassy in China”
“It makes sense. There are hundreds and hundreds of North Korean defectors, but only a few staff members working there,” Baek says. “Also by helping these refugees, the staff members could complicate many things, so I am guessing they are also very cautious on this issue.”
Baek said going to South Korea by way of Southeast Asia, while still the safest and fastest route, is also not without risks.
“I have heard before that there are also many North Korean spies who pretend to be defectors,” he said. “They would find out the routes of escape and through what route they get to a given country.”
Sokeel Park of LiNK said that, in order for defectors to make it to South Korea, it “requires some level of willingness to cooperate with the South Korean government” from third countries, or that they turn a blind eye.
“It’s much easier for the South Korean government to encourage Southeast Asian countries to be flexible and cooperative regarding North Korean refugees because the relationship is completely different to their relationship with China, and also because Beijing’s calculus on North Korean refugees is completely different,” Park said.
A bilateral summit in November of this year saw South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping discuss the human rights of North Korean defectors, with Moon reportedly expressing Seoul’s support for humanitarian principles in handling escapees and welcoming them to the South.
But it is questionable whether their discussion means the two countries will give more attention to issues surrounding the repatriation of North Korean defectors, especially since South Korea and China have just begun to normalize relations after a long fight over the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.
Regardless, Park emphasizes the importance of making progress on the issue of North Korea refugees, arguing that helping defectors is also a way to help people still living in the DPRK.
“North Korean refugees, if they are able to resettle safely, are able to send back money and information to their families still in North Korea,” he said. “It is a good strategic investment to help refugees.”
Additional reporting: Sophie Lamotte
Edited by Oliver Hotham and Bryan Betts