China is No Safe Haven

Since escape to South Korea is virtually impossible (due to the DMZ), fleeing from North Korea involves only one option: crossing the Yalu or Tumen rivers into China. Sometimes, this involves bribing North Korean border guards, but generally, defectors take the risk of getting shot by wading through the river or, in the winter months, running across its frozen surface. At present, it is estimated that approximately 250,000 North Koreans live in China.

Once in China, however, North Koreans quickly learn that their new life is actually worse than the one they left behind. Most of the women end up being forced into prostitution or sold as brides to Chinese farmers. Children often end up as homeless street kids. Men, who represent only about 30% of defectors, usually end up as farm-hands, if they’re lucky, or homeless living primitively in the woods. Moreover, they all must exist each day with the ominous threat of being caught and refouled to the DPRK.

Simply put, the situation in China exists because of official Chinese Government policies to:

  • Ban organizations and arrest individuals that provide humanitarian assistance to the North Koreans, and offer bounties of up to 10,000 yuan (~$1,230) for information leading to their arrest.
  • Engage in raids and openly allow thousands of agents from the DPRK to operate within its borders to root out, capture and refoule defectors, and offer bounties of up to 3,000 yuan (~$370) for information leading to the capture of a North Korean.
  • Torture defectors and aid workers to obtain information on the whereabouts of other defectors and underground activities to assist them.
  • Deny the rights accorded the North Koreans by international laws.

Incredibly, though China doesn’t want the North Koreans within its own territory, they also arrest them as they try to leave. In April 2004, Chinese border guards shot at a group of North Koreans, killing one, as they were literally crossing the border into Mongolia.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Ruud Lubbers, in a 16 October 2003 letter responding to Sen. Richard Lugar, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, states that: “In my last discussion with the Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of China in Geneva, he assured me that deportations of North Koreans would be limited to those involved in serious, non-immigrations-related crimes.” Notwithstanding, according to the World Refugee Survey 2004 by the US Committee for Refugees, China refouled an average of 150 North Koreans a week in 2003.

A fear of refoulement to North Korea is not without basis. Article 47 of the North Korean Criminal Code provides that “One who escapes to another country … shall be punished by at least seven years or more labor reeducation. If it is a serious violation, he shall be punished by execution and forfeiture of all property.” This and other such articles are in direct violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

Moreover, as Hawk explains in The Hidden Gulag, “despite the shortness of sentences served … [labor camps] are characterized by very high levels of deaths in detention from inadequate food combined with excessively hard labor.” Thus, for many, a “three-year” sentence is a life sentence. Prisoners are forced to scrounge for food, often arbitrarily beaten and tortured and the female prisoners raped. Because many of the female refugees have been forced into prostitution or “marriages,” it’s not uncommon for some to be pregnant when they’re refouled. When this occurs, they are routinely subjected to forced abortions or infanticide.

Thus, North Koreans in China are caught between a rock and a hard place: life is worse in China but they cannot return home, where they will be considered criminals and traitors subject to torture and execution.