North Korean refugees in China are a problematic and multi-faceted issue, playing a pivotal role in the complexity of the China-North Korea relationship.
The detention of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee for trespassing from China into North Korea this past summer focused international attention on the challenges North Korean refugees face in China. A broader debate on China’s policy on forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees also emerged.
However, the ramifications of the journalists’ actions have also gathered widespread criticism.
“With due sympathy, what the journalists did was basically reckless: North Korea is not Disneyland, but a sovereign nation. Because of their reckless adventurism, more North Koreans might be suffering inside due to tightened border control,” says Mikyoung Kim, associate professor at Hiroshima City University.
Fifty US dollars can get a single North Korean across the 850-mile long border into China, possibly ensuring the person a full stomach, extra cash, and the opportunity to escape the reaches of an oppressive regime. Regardless of the circumstances they may face on the other side, returning to North Korea is a difficult option where they could possibly face imprisonment, torture, and even execution. Many, however, find that life in China is not what they thought it would be.
The accessibility of the border also remains vital for those who wish to temporarily cross the border for purely financial reasons.
“One of the things that is important about the situation is keeping the border open because it is a safety valve for North Koreans who come into China that may work for a bit or sometimes buy supplies for their families before heading back,” argues Joel Charny, acting President of Refugees International. “It’s a mixed movement because some people leave definitively, and some people leave to China just to stay for a bit and go back to North Korea.”
Most estimate the current number of North Koreans residing in China to be 30,000-50,000, while some non-governmental organizations such as South Korea’s Good Friends: Centre for Peace, Human Rights and Refugees put it as high as 300,000.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a nation-wide famine devastated North Korea, with the death toll estimated between 900,000 to 2.4 million. The national economy also suffered a loss of imports from Russia equal to 40 percent of all imports as the newly created states began to disassociate themselves from socialist allies, according to a 2005 article from the Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs.
The famine reached its peak in 1995, as the nation suffered disastrous floods, destroying key agricultural land used to grow its main export, grain. In a desperate search for food, North Koreans flooded into China. A majority of the refugees came from North Hamgyong province, located in the upper northeastern corner of North Korea, which is believed to have been the hardest hit by the famine.
Charny says, “During the Cultural Revolution and other extreme moments in China, the movement [of people] was actually in the other direction. When North Korea was more stable and more prosperous, the Chinese would actually travel in to North Korea.”
As the situation began to stabilize in late 1999 and early 2000, the North Korean refugees began to notice the potential for a decent standard of living by remaining in China. According to Yonhap News estimates, North Koreans working in China earned US$30-70 per month, whereas in North Korea, they earned only US$1-2 per month.
With the prospect of improved living conditions, reliable sources of income, and the assurance of food across the border, tens of thousands of North Koreans decided to remain in China, predominately in Liaoning and Jilin provinces.
“The Pyongyang regime bears the ultimate responsibility in the exodus. The state becomes an automatic failure when it cannot feed its citizens. In that sense, Beijing’s headache comes from the Pyongyang leadership,” says Hiroshima City University’s Kim. “What we need is not necessarily to drive Beijing to a corner in its treatment of the escapees, but motivate China to work with North Korea so that it can improve its basic governing philosophy; feeding and protecting should come before building nukes.”
The North Korean regime’s continued use of gulag-style labor camps to enforce norms of expression and behavior has also contributed to the exodus. Labor reeducation has become an almost universal punishment for citizens who refuse to accept the jobs assigned them by the North Korean government as well as those captured while trying to escape North Korea.
Labor camp prisoners log, mine, and tend to crops under sub-standard conditions, receiving starvation rations and little to no medical care. Many die in the camps.
North Korean refugees tend to have one of three primary intentions while residing in China: make China their permanent residence, leave to a third country, which in most cases is South Korea, or return to North Korea. This is the finding of surveys conducted by the authors of the working paper, “Migration Experiences of North Korean Refugees: Survey Evidence from China,” published by the New York-based Peterson Institute for International Economics. Most migrants remain in China in order to earn money to continue on or to head back to North Korea.
The overwhelming majority (76%) of North Korean refugees reside with Chinese citizens of Korean descent, whether as spouses or as a means of receiving temporary assistance. Some Korean Chinese citizens aid the refugees in gratitude for the same aid they received from North Koreans during the Cultural Revolution. Most of the brokers arranging marriages between North Koreans and Chinese are of Korean-Chinese.
A stunning fact is that of the North Korean refugees, nearly 80% are women. While hunger and repression are some of the clear driving factors that bring women over the border, what particularly makes their numbers so lopsided in comparison to men is that many female refugees are sold into sex trafficking. “I think the number of people who come as a result of being sex-trafficked throw off that ratio of men to women, and as a result you see more women refugees in China than men,” said Mike Kim, founder of Crossing Borders, a nonprofit dedicated to providing humanitarian assistance to North Korean refugees, in an interview with Radio Free Asia,
These women also run the risk of being sold by human traffickers into marriages with Chinese men. These women are sold as brides for anywhere from US$486 to $1,488. Potential spouses are generally men who are either too poor to afford the bride price for a local woman, which the Global Times reports is usually from US$4,393 to $14,645 (but can reach as high as US$140,000), or are considered “undesirable” because they are older, divorced or handicapped.
“The women escapees are the most vulnerable group for being stateless and female. There is a high demand for [brides] in the Sino-North Korean border. Often, there are marriage brokers who sell the women escapees to the Chinese men, and the cases of physical and mental abuses are not infrequent. The reason lies with the staggering sex ratio in rural China…[due to] the aftermath of Beijing’s one child policy,” says Kim.
The North Korean women who are sold into these marriages are, first and foremost, stateless. Although purchased by a Chinese national and considered to be married, the women are unable to apply for a marriage license, or Chinese citizenship, for fear of being reported, captured, or sent back. Furthermore, without a hukou, or residence permit, the North Korean refugees are unable to make claims or pursue their rights in court. As a result, many of these women must rely entirely on their spouses for protection from government officials.
Forged identification cards are also purchased to allow for easier movement within the China. Prices may range from US$10 to $1,260, with the latter even including a Chinese household registration number.
Although some North Korean refugees find work as domestic servants or day laborers, it is illegal for a Chinese national or business to hire a foreigner under the 1996 Provisions on Administration of Employment of Foreigners in China. Those who are found doing so are fined US$4,110.
While children of Chinese men and North Korean women can be entered into the Chinese household register for a $100-$400 fee, they are still considered stateless and face a large array of social challenges.
Tim Pieters, the founder and acting President of Helping Hands Korea, works first hand with such cases.
“Because the North Korea mother is not carrying any legal papers, having left North Korea illegally and without permission, the children are ‘stateless.’ As a result, these children are unable to attend local schools and are not able to receive healthcare or go to a hospital,” Pieters says. “In some cases, the father must show that the mother, the illegally entered mother, has already been repatriated through police reports or other documents in order to register the child.”
Pieters adds, “This is an absolute nightmare of a situation where the mother is being ripped away from [her] child. This is happening on a vast scale as well.”
Although much international pressure has been placed on China to address the growing humanitarian concern along its border with North Korea, government officials continue to deny the legitimacy of the term “refugee” for North Korean refugees.
In 2004, Human Rights Watch criticized Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing for referring to North Koreans in China not as refugees, but as “illegal economic immigrants.”
Andreas Schloenhardt, an associate professor at the University of Queensland TC Beirne School of Law, explains, “Realistically, [the Chinese government] might not have to face any consequences [for referring to North Korean refugees as illegal economic immigrants]. The reason for that is, on one hand, many of the North Koreans really leave for economic reasons. Many of them just seek out jobs on the other side of the border, which are higher paid.”
Stateless and considered illegal economic immigrants within China, North Korean refugees run the risk of being repatriated back to North Korea. The United Nations 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees specifies who is considered a refugee, his/her due rights, and the legal obligations of the member states in dealing with a refugee. China ratified the convention on Sept. 24, 1982, but it does not consider the North Koreans to be refugees; thus, Chinese officials contend the country is not obligated to provide the aid mandated under the convention.
International law also forbids states from forcibly repatriating refugees if it is known that they will face severe consequences once sent back. China’s policy of repatriation goes against this principle of “non-refoulement”. In many instances, repatriated refugees are sent to labor camps as punishment, which is evidenced by the number of people that have managed to live and share their story.
“North Korean labor camps are hell on earth,” said Bang Mi Sun, a refugee who managed to flee a gulag-style prison camp in a Wall Street Journal article.
However, there are certain instances in which China may allow a North Korean refugee to leave to a third country. According to the World Refugee Survey, China will allow a defector to leave for South Korea after five to six months of obtaining attention from the media and safety from a foreign embassy or consulate.
“Let us not forget that China is a very proud country with many domestic woes,” Kim adds. “I would be surprised if North Korean refugees receive the protection tantamount to the Western standard considering the existence of a large, underprivileged domestic population. If you were Hu Jintao, who would you feed first, your fellow countrymen or your neighbors?”
China has also been criticized for refusing to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access into areas that are known for fostering many North Korean refugees. Regardless, the UNHCR has continued to seek access, further citing the violations that China has been committing against the 1951 convention.
“To the disgrace of the UNHCR, they have submitted and surrendered to that particular command by the Chinese government, which… is absolutely an abominable situation,” Mr. Pieters says.
However, Schloenhardt believes there is a possibility that the Chinese government may change its decision.
“If the situation is to get worse, there might be a way to ask China to at least allow the UNHCR to work in those areas. If the UNHCR processes these North Koreans, they will be guaranteed the opportunity to be resettled in another country. One of the reasons why China is so reluctant…is that they are worried hundreds of thousands of North Koreans will come across should they be entitled to stay,” he says.
While the UNHCR is hamstrung in aiding the refugees, there are non-governmental humanitarian organizations providing immediate assistance through community-based efforts like orphanages, and also help relocate the refugees into asylum countries such as South Korea. Most of these are Christian organizations.
“You basically have two choices. You can try and work above ground, work through the Chinese authorities, and get permission to be there. There are a couple organizations that have managed to do so over time, but [it’s] a very slow process. However, once you get permission, it enables one to be somewhat protected from a political crackdown,” Charny says.
In response to widespread criticism, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) began to take steps to limit the flow of refugees. The South Korean Newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, reported that the DPRK National Defense Commission has conducted “village-to-village indoctrination lectures on a massive scale” to inform local inhabitants that any civilian seen crossing the Tumen (Duman) or Yalu (Apnok) Rivers would be considered a traitor.
The newly revamped Chongori reeducation center, reserved for those arrested while crossing the border, may be seen as a leading indicator of the North Korean government’s now stricter policy. Chongori forces prisoners to work 14 hours each day, providing them with limited rations, and many do not even survive.
Standard punishment for to leave North Korea without permission is now up to three years in a labor camp- the usual sentence was six months to two years of hard labor- or a sentence to a reeducation center.
So far, however, these stricter regulations have done little to discourage North Koreans from continuing to cross the border into China. Chinese merchants also appear to be as busy as ever on the border. Earlier this month three were killed by a North Korean border guard, who suspected them of illegal trading. The North Korean government apologized for the incident. No apologies have been forthcoming for North Koreans killed trying to find better lives outside their country.
China has accepted this apology and has thus far not accepted the South Korean claim that its naval vessel, the Cheonan, was sunk in March by the North. It is anxious to avoid publicly pressuring the North Korean regime. Many Chinese policymakers fear that a collapse of the North or a succession struggle could transform the steady flow of North Korean refugees entering China into a torrent.
Paul Kim is a senior at Cerritos High School.
For further reference: UNHCR 1951 Refugee Convention
Click here to see an interactive map of the five major North Korean prison camps from The Washington Post.