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China: North Korean Refugees a Hindrance to Denuclearization?

by Scott A. Snyder
March 15, 2012

Protesters attend a rally held by former North Korean defectors and anti-North Korean activists near the Chinese embassy in Seoul. (Kim Hong-ji/Courtesy Reuters)


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally had occasion to address an ongoing spat over Chinese repatriation of over thirty North Koreans, many of whom have family members in South Korea, at a joint press conference with ROK foreign minister Kim Sung-hwan last Friday.  In answer to a reporter’s question, she stated that “we believe that refugees should not be repatriated and subjected once again to the dangers that they fled from. . . we urge all countries in the region to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees within their territories.”

These cases have occasioned appeals in recent weeks from the South Korean government, a hunger strike by a South Korean parliamentarian in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul, and a benefit concert by South Korean pop stars to draw attention to the plight of these refugees.  If the testimony of other refugees from North Korea is correct, those North Koreans repatriated by Chinese authorities—in abrogation of China’s international treaty commitments against refoulement—face serious interrogation, possible torture, and imprisonment under extraordinarily harsh conditions.  North Korean women who become pregnant in China are likely to face involuntary abortions. And, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has threatened to “exterminate” three generations of any family member who defects from North Korea during the mourning period of Kim Jong-il.

Although these issues have returned to the public eye, there is nothing new about these circumstances, which have been standard operating procedure between China and the DPRK for well over a decade since the issue first became politicized by North Korean refugee dashes to political asylum in foreign embassies and consulates in Beijing and other cities in 2002.  China’s solution: build fences around foreign diplomatic compounds to keep the North Korean refugees out, and repatriate “economic migrants” who have found their way into China.  The result has been to force a steady stream of North Korean refugees to travel across China to Southeast Asian countries where they are able to apply for asylum and onward passage to Seoul.

For those North Korean refugees who successfully entered South Korean diplomatic facilities, the informal deal between South Korea and China has been that as long as cases were unpublicized in the media, China would reluctantly allow their onward passage to Seoul. Though China continued to repatriate North Koreans who failed to pass the guards, fences, and other obstacles to asylum, this informal deal allowed for some to escape a forced return to North Korea.

In early 2012, however, this agreement broke down, resulting in a renewed South Korean public campaign to draw attention to the refugees’ troubles.  Despite the now extensive body of eyewitness testimony regarding the plight of North Korean refugees who finally made it to Seoul after having been returned to North Korea from China, China continues to insist that all North Korean refugees are economic migrants and has refused to allow the office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees to interview them.

A February 24 Renmin Ribao editorial issued in Chinese during the latest round of U.S.-DPRK talks in Beijing criticizes South Korea for politicizing the refugee issue “at a sensitive moment” while the United States and North Korea were engaging in talks in Beijing. The editorial argues that South Korea’s actions are a sign of disrespect toward China’s efforts to contribute constructively to promote peace and stability on the peninsula, and that they hinder the resumption of Six Party Talks. Furthermore, it states that it is useless for South Korea to politicize, internationalize, and connect the issue of China’s repatriation of North Koreans to the refugee issue.

That a leading Chinese publication would voice such a critique is surely a prime example of what President Obama once characterized as China’s “willful blindness” toward the Korean peninsula.  But if North Korean refugees have faced these same circumstances for over a decade with no crescendo of outcry from the international community, it is not only the Chinese government that has been willfully blind to their plight.

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  • Posted by SP

    North Korean refugees are not facing exactly the same circumstances as they have for a decade. In fact the Chinese govt is cooperating with the new NK leadership to crack down very severely on NK refugees in NE China, and border security is much stricter on the NK side too (and has been since around the summer of 2011). The security situation is worse than it has been for a long time.

    It appears that the NK regime under new leadership takes the issue of defection even more seriously, there have been those reports of harsher punishments being meted out for attempted defectors and their families (reports which have gained a lot of traction in Seoul, particularly among the defector community), so there is understandably an even greater sense of outrage against the Chinese govt that are seen as cooperating with the NK regime to crack down on refugees and so are complicit in NK’s human rights abuses.

    Add to that China’s decreasing willingness to show flexibility in quiet diplomacy on defector issues, and it is understandable why this has all come to a head.

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