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  • Lily Meckel

China's complicity in the deportation of North Korean defectors


Image: Flikr/Roman Harak

North Korea is known to be one of the most hostile and isolated countries in the world. Since the country was established in 1948, it has been ruled by the Kim regime, which is now in its third generation of power with Kim Jong Un as the current leader. The totalitarian leadership has led the country into extreme poverty and economic hardship and has harshly punished any of those who dare to speak out against or try to escape the regime. Despite the many risks and dangers facing North Koreans who deceive the North Korean leadership, thousands have attempted the perilous journey to freedom.

Many North Korean escapees seek to reach South Korea; since the late 90s when South Korea began tracking numbers, approximately 34,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea, where they are automatically granted citizenship and are guaranteed protection. But the journey to reaching South Korea is not an easy one. North Koreans risk their lives in pursuit of a safe and free life in South Korea, which in the majority of cases involves transiting through China, a country that does not recognize them as refugees and will repatriate them back to North Korea if they are caught. And ever since the closure of the North Korean border due to the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside increasingly advanced surveillance technology in China, it has only become even more difficult and dangerous to defect.

North Korean society is tightly controlled, and so is travelling into or out of the country. In order for North Koreans to leave the country, they need to obtain government permission, which is only granted in particular circumstances, making it extremely difficult to flee. This is why those who want to escape the regime have to secretly cross over into a bordering country. The border area between North and South Korea, known as the DMZ (demilitarized zone), is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world, which makes it close to impossible for North Koreans to cross into South Korea directly, with only limited success stories. Crossing into Russia is also difficult, as North Korea’s land border with Russia is extremely narrow, heavily patrolled, and comes with the risk of being sent back. Therefore, the only option that remains is crossing over into China.

China has the longest land border with North Korea at a length of around 1400 kilometres. Given that China is an ally and the main trade partner of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and there is economic activity wherein North Koreans work in China - officially and unofficially - there is much interaction along the border, with the two countries connected by bridges, railways, and more. The border is also heavily patrolled, but since it is so long, not every spot can be controlled, which is how some North Koreans seeking to escape the oppressive regime manage to defect to China undetected. The two main crossing points for North Korean defectors to get to China are the Tumen and Yalu rivers. Once defectors arrive in China, they live undercover until they reach their next destination, which is often a third country nearby, either Mongolia or countries in Southeast Asia, where they can apply for refugee status and access a South Korean embassy which will arrange their journey to Seoul.

Defectors are unable to remain indefinitely in China because their refugee status is not recognised there. Instead, China views North Koreans as illegal economic migrants, and due to the repatriation policy agreed upon under the China / DPRK border agreement, they will be sent back to North Korea if detected by Chinese police. Thus, in order to make it to a third country, North Koreans settle temporarily in China, although sometimes for months to years on end, living in hiding and working undercover, raising funds to pay brokers and smuggling networks to further their journey without any legal protections in place. This leaves North Koreans defectors in China, particularly North Korean women who make up the majority of defectors, vulnerable and subject to exploitation such as human trafficking, sexual slavery and forced marriages, among other human rights violations.

The lack of acknowledgment of North Koreans as refugees and the forced repatriation policy makes China complicit in the deportation of North Koreans back to North Korea and subsequent human rights abuses that await defectors upon their return. North Korea deems defectors as traitors of the regime; reports have stated that repatriated defectors are sent to prison camps and, in some cases, executed. As a signatory to the UN convention on refugees, China is obligated to grant protection to North Koreans who are escaping due to political persecution, and is not allowed to send people back who face risks to their lives upon return.

There was a halt in the repatriation of captured defectors in China during the pandemic due to COVID-19-related border closures in North Korea. Yet with North Korea now slowly showing signs of opening, the issue of forced repatriation has returned to the forefront, with concerns being raised that China will forcibly return anywhere between 600 to 2000 North Korean defectors. These people face risks to their lives upon their return, which has prompted open calls from the international community, including the United Nations, for China to halt the repatriation of North Korean defectors.



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