Fleeing North Korea: refugees’ perilous journey to safety

 Photo: Jon Flobrant

Photo: Jon Flobrant

By Jasmin Tarakei (Legal Researcher, Asia)

In  light of the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang and the joint participation of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea)  under a unified Korean flag, it is easy to forget the tensions leading up to this event.

Without wanting to lessen this momentous achievement between the two countries that gives many people hope for increasing stability on the Korean peninsula, we should not neglect the disastrous human rights record of the North Korean regime. In fact, one of the only reasons we know as much as we do today about this hermit State is due to the brave men, women and children who have dared to escape. Although there is much to write about the dangers they have faced, their escape routes, the violations they witnessed, or were victims of, within North Korea and during their escapes, we wish to draw attention to one area in particular.

Most people may only be aware of the larger political situation, and therefore the situation of escaping North Koreans and the debate about their refugee status and its implications might slip ones’ attention. Although the exact number of refugees is unclear and varies according to each institution’s statistics , all escape routes for those fleeing human rights violations in North Korea, apart from a few exceptions, go through China. The Chinese regions around the Tumun river and Hunchun are some of the most common options for escapees. Therefore, refugees fleeing North Korea are entirely dependent on the refugee protections provided by China, especially concerning their recognition of the ‘non-refoulement’ principle. This fundamental principle of international law prohibits countries receiving asylum-seekers from returning them to their country of origin if indeed this extradition/deportation/return places the refugee at real risk of persecution or torture. In the case of North Korean refugees, regardless of their reasons for leaving, upon departure they all come within the remit of refugees sur place- meaning if they are forcibly returned, they will face severe punishment by the State. 

Significant difficulties arise due to China’s refusal to acknowledge North Korean refugees as such, due to their bilateral agreement with North Korea (1986 Border Protocol). Instead, they are seen as ‘illegal economic migrants’ and are, therefore, not provided with any of the protections under international refugee law. As the 2014 UNHRC Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK correctly points out:

‘[…] nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea should be recognised as refugees fleeing from persecution or refugees sur place. They are thereby entitled to international protection. In forcibly returning nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China also violates its obligation to respect the principle of non-refoulement under international refugee and human rights law.’

This denial to protect those in need has provided rich ground for smugglers and traffickers in the area to take advantage of these vulnerable persons. This has also been pointed out in the 2018 Human Rights Watch country report on North Korea. The report rightly criticises China’s non-compliance with the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol.

The escapees, who are overwhelmingly women, are vulnerable without any legal protection. In case they are captured by Chinese authorities and returned to North Korea, they are either subjected to forced labour or if they are considered to be enemies of the State, they are sent to inhumane political prison camps. Being aware of this situation they often feel helpless and are exploited by traffickers. The 2009 report by the Committee for Human Rights, as well as other publications paint a grim picture. A lack of women due to China’s former One-Child-Policy has left many rural areas of China with a high gender imbalance. An offer of a better life or work are only one of the ways traffickers lure North Korean refugees. Although they might have consented to these agreements, their actual situation can differ starkly from the original agreements and promises made. They might be married into abusive households, resold multiple times to different men or in case of employment promises, forced into prostitution and other kinds of sex work. Due to their lack of recognition and legal status in China, they can easily be threatened with being sent back to North Korea if they do not comply. Furthermore, children born in China through these marriages are considered stateless, as they neither fall under the protection of China nor of North Korea.

Even if these refugees are lucky enough to not be caught by the authorities or brokers, their escape to freedom remains perilous. Their individual hardships differ in accordance with the specific circumstances, but even so we are, of course, able to map some trends. The most common migration route spans from the Chinese Mainland, over Laos to Thailand, from where the South Korean embassy provides flights to South Korea. Missionaries, NGO workers as well as brokers have managed to build a network for North Korean asylum seekers, in order to facilitate resettlement in South Korea. According to the NGO Liberty in North Korea, they estimate the costs of rescuing one refugee to about $3000, while an article by the Financial Times even mentions an amount of more than $5000 for the safe passage by brokers. Due to a recent tightening at the borders around the end of 2017, amid rising tensions and a crackdown on missionaries and activists, the chances of escape have become even slimmer.

We strongly urge the Chinese government to adhere to their legal obligations arising out of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol and to stop forcibly returning these refugees to North Korea, knowing they will be subjected to inhuman treatment, torture and abuse. North Koreans should be recognised as refugees and granted asylum, or at least allow these vulnerable individuals to pass safely through the Chinese mainland until they reach their final destinations.

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Davis, K (2006), Brides, Bruises and the Border: The Trafficking of North Korean Women into China. SAIS Review of International Affairs 26(1), 131-141. Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved February 24, 2018, from Project MUSE database, p134

Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, p.10f

Human Rights Watch World Report 2018 – North Korea

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Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Lives for Sale: Personal Accounts of Women Fleeing North Korea to China

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Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Lives for Sale: Personal Accounts of Women Fleeing North Korea to China. p10

Reuters, Surge in North Koreans slipping into Thailand: immigration

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Financial Times, ‘Escape route from North Korea grows ever more perilous’

Reuters, ‘China expels 32 South Korea missionaries amid missile defence tension’

Human Rights Watch World Report 2018 – North Korea

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