Front-page headlines, provocative tweets, diplomatic maneuvering, incendiary rhetoric, and urgent United Nations Security Council meetings have been relentless in response to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's missile and nuclear tests. Many eyes are on China, and what its leaders will do to pressure Pyongyang to end its gamesmanship.
But another life-threatening crisis is emanating from North Korea that few are watching: China's apparently expanding dragnet to force back fleeing North Koreans. These forced returns very likely mean that the government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has imprisoned and tortured dozens of refugees.
Starting in July, China appears to have intensified its crackdown on groups of North Koreans trying to move through China in search of protection in a third country, and on the networks of people that facilitate their escape.
While an absolute figure on the number of fleeing North Koreans is impossible to determine, Human Rights Watch documented the apprehending of 41 people in July and August, a steep increase from the 51 known to have been caught the entire previous year, from July of 2016 to June of 2017.
Among the 92 North Koreans Human Rights Watch knows were caught since June of 2016 were a newborn baby, 11 other children, and four older women in frail health. According to family members and activists, only 46 are still in Chinese custody and the rest have been forced back, despite entreaties by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, and concerned governments.
Human Rights Watch believes that China has also arrested a number of local guides, undermining the capability of networks helping North Koreans to pass through China and reach safety in South Korea or other third-party countries.
China is a party to the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and its accompanying 1967 Protocol, yet routinely designates North Korean refugees as illegal "economic migrants." China regularly violates its treaty obligations by returning escapees to North Korea, despite the likelihood they will be persecuted, tortured, and subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment for leaving. These North Koreans are internationally recognized as refugees sur place—people who are refugees due to the risk of persecution upon return—who deserve protection regardless of why they left North Korea.
China surely knows that the DPRK, as a matter of state policy, tortures forcibly returned North Koreans while interrogating them about their activities abroad. North Korea's Ministry of People's Security enforces a decree that classifies defection as a crime of "treachery against the nation." Punishments are harsh and can include a death sentence. Others disappear into North Korea's horrific political prison camp system (kwanliso), to face torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and other inhuman treatment, or forced labor camps, where they can spend years working in harsh and dangerous conditions.
China should immediately stop sending these North Koreans back into harm's way. Beijing should either recognize these North Koreans as refugees and protect them, or, at a minimum, permit them to travel through China without obstruction to seek safety in a country that is prepared to receive them.
North Korea needs to recognize that China and the rest of the world don't dance to its tune.
Following the Arduous March in North Korea, the great famine that killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people between 1994 and 1998, many North Koreans crossed to China in their desperate search for food and shelter. It is possible that Beijing hopes to deter any future mass exodus over the Yalu and Tumen rivers, which serve as the North Korea-China border. However, the situation is now different. Crossing the border has become much more difficult, and a second mass refugee migration into China would most likely only happen following a major calamity. There has been a steady increase in border security, and the steep expansion in the last five years on both sides of the border has made it extremely difficult for anyone to leave North Korea without political or social connections.
Both governments have increased the number of their border guards and added more barbed wire fencing. China has expanded CCTV surveillance and increased checkpoints on roads leading away from the border. Pyongyang has cracked down on networks aiding escaping citizens. These include guides, border guards, and police who collude with them, and those illicitly communicating with people in third countries, usually with mobile phones surreptitiously acquired in China that are usable in border areas.
China should understand that granting asylum to North Koreans or allowing them to safely pass through to a third country is not likely to trigger a mass exodus. Beijing should also recognize that allowing UNHCRand the International Committee of the Red Cross access to North Koreans in China can also marshal help for the future, whatever the outcome of the current tensions inside North Korea, and between North Korea and its neighbors.
China could resume looking the other way as North Koreans traverse their territory, or start developing mechanisms that allow safe passage for North Koreans to reach a third country willing to accept and protect them. Letting North Korean refugees pass through China without being apprehended would send an important message to the leaders in Pyongyang that they cannot count on their neighbor in all things.
North Korea needs to recognize that China and the rest of the world don't dance to its tune. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his government should know that unless they end their systematic and pervasive violations of human rights, it's inevitable that their citizens will flee persecution and seek protection abroad, where the international community will learn of the abuses they have suffered.