Perilous Journeys: The Plight of North Koreans in China and Beyond

One reason for the stalemate over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is because neighboring nations fear a rush of desperate refugees from the country of 23 million people. The International Crisis Group reports that a record number of North Koreans headed to South Korea this year to escape the brutal political control and isolation of Kim Jong Il, which has led to famine, censorship and primitive living conditions. But refugees who head to China, Vietnam or Laos face exploitation, forced deportation home and even execution. So another stalemate emerges over human rights: The dictator rejects any intervention, and the international community resists refugees. Even Western countries who issue the harshest criticism against the North Korean government do little to assist the asylum seekers. Ongoing tough containment of North Korean citizens only increases the desperation and could contribute to a tremendous and sudden human crush that could destabilize the entire region. With that warning, the International Crisis Group issues specific recommendations on how Asian nations can provide gradual assistance to a people who have little hope and every reason to risk their lives for escape. – YaleGlobal

Perilous Journeys: The Plight of North Koreans in China and Beyond

Friday, October 27, 2006

Scores of thousands of North Koreans have been risking their lives to escape their country’s hardships in search of a better life, contributing to a humanitarian challenge that is playing out almost invisibly as the world focuses on North Korea’s nuclear program. Only a little over 9,000 have made it to safety, mostly in South Korea but also in Japan, Europe and the U.S. Many more live in hiding from crackdowns and forcible repatriations by China and neighbouring countries, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. If repatriated to the North, they face harsh punishment, possibly execution. China and South Korea have held back, even during the Security Council debate over post-test sanctions, from applying as much pressure as they might to persuade Pyongyang to reverse its dangerous nuclear policy, in part because they fear that the steady stream of North Koreans flowing into China and beyond would become a torrent if the North’s economy were to collapse under the weight of tough measures. While there is marginally more hope Beijing will change its ways than Pyongyang, concerned governments can and must do far more to improve the situation of the border crossers.

Even without a strong response to the 9 October 2006 nuclear test that targets the North’s economy, the internal situation could soon get much worse. The perfect storm may be brewing for a return to famine in the North. Last year, Pyongyang reintroduced the same public distribution system for food that collapsed in the 1990s and rejected international humanitarian assistance, demanding instead unmonitored development help. Funding for remaining aid programs is difficult to secure, and summer floods have damaged crops and infrastructure.

Hunger and the lack of economic opportunity, rather than political oppression, are the most important factors in shaping a North Korean’s decision to leave “the worker’s paradise”. A lack of information, the fear of being caught by Chinese or North Korean security agents and financial limitations are more significant barriers than any actual wall or tight security at the border. China compensates for the virtual absence of border guards with a relentless search for North Koreans in hiding. In October 2006, Chinese authorities began to build a fence along the frontier and conduct neighbourhood sweeps to find and arrest the border crossers.

Despite these formidable obstacles, the willingness among North Koreans to risk their lives to escape is growing stronger, and arrivals in the South are likely to hit a record this year. The most important pull factor shaping the decision to leave is the presence of family members in China and, increasingly, South Korea. The nearly 9,000 defectors in the South are able to send cash and information to help their loved ones escape. To a lesser but significant extent, information is beginning to spread in the North through smuggled South Korean videos, American and South Korean radio broadcasts, and word of mouth – all exposing North Koreans to new ideas and aspirations.

Most North Koreans do not arrive in China with the intention of seeking official asylum, but because Beijing is making it ever more difficult for them to stay, a growing number are forced to travel thousands of kilometres and undertake dangerous border crossings in search of refuge in Mongolia or South East Asia. The mass arrests of 175 asylum seekers in Bangkok in August 2006 and a further 86 on 24 October provide vivid examples of host country hospitality being stretched to the limits.

The vast majority of North Koreans who have made it to safety resettle in South Korea. In most instances, this is a choice motivated by language, culture and the promise of being reunited with family members. In a growing number of cases, the overly burdensome procedures for being granted asylum anywhere else is the deciding factor. With the exception of Germany, the governments that have pressed most vigorously for improving North Korean human rights, namely the U.S., the European Union member states and Japan, have taken in only a handful of asylum seekers.

A loose network of makeshift shelters focused on humanitarian aid has evolved into a politically-charged but fragile underground railroad on which some North Koreans can buy safe passage to Seoul in a matter of days, while others suffer years of violence and exploitation. If they are to minimise the exploitation of the most vulnerable and enhance the much-needed aid this network delivers, concerned governments must commit to a sustainable solution.

None of the policies proposed in this report would create unmanageable burdens for any government. Unless North Korea’s economy collapses completely, the numbers of its citizens crossing international borders will continue to be restricted by many factors, not least Pyongyang’s tight controls on internal movement and the financial cost of securing an escape route. However, it is time to back up strong words and resolutions about the plight of North Koreans with actions, both because humanity demands it and because if the international community cannot quickly get a handle on this situation, it will find it harder to forge an operational consensus on the nuclear issue.


To the Government of North Korea:

1. Relax policies on China travel in order to relieve popular pressures by:

(a) allowing more North Koreans to visit relatives in China and allowing more frequent visits;

(b) providing permission for a greater number of North Koreans to visit each year for limited periods to trade or work; and

(c) exploring with China the creation of a regime under which citizens of both countries who live in close proximity to the common border can make a certain number of short visits each year for commercial or family purposes under advantageous conditions.

2. Review the penalties for unauthorised visits to China and at least reduce them substantially.

3. Expand the reform and opening of the economy so as to ease the pressure felt by many North Koreans to seek opportunities abroad.

4. De-link asylum seeker/defector issues from relations with South Korea.

To the Government of China:

5. Stop the forcible repatriation of North Koreans and continue to engage with South Korea and other countries when North Koreans need transfer to another state.

6. Grant provisional residency to North Korean spouses of Chinese citizens and their children.

7. Continue to work with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to develop and put rapidly into place a domestic legal framework for asylum seekers that addresses the needs of North Koreans in China and provides specific protection for North Korean spouses of Chinese citizens and their children against trafficking and abuse (including domestic violence).

8. Allow the children born to the North Korean spouses of Chinese citizens to attend school.

9. Ease regulations for North Koreans to visit relatives in China.

10. Eliminate the bounties offered for turning in North Koreans in hiding.

11. Grant the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and NGO workers access to North Koreans in China.

12. Devote greater resources to cracking down on human trafficking and ensure its victims access to protection.

To the Governments of Vietnam, Burma and Laos:

13. Stop forced deportations of North Koreans to China or North Korea.

To the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees:

14. Press China to abide by the principle of non-refoulement (prohibiting expulsion or return) in the 1951 Convention on Refugees, demand access to the North Korean border area and take a more active role in overseeing the transfer and resettlement process in Mongolia, Russia, Vietnam, Burma and Laos.

15. Continue working with China on developing a domestic legal framework for political asylum.

To the Government of South Korea:

16. Clarify procedures for relocating and settling North Koreans in third countries in coordination with the UNHCR and NGOs.

17. Actively seek the release of South Korean citizens arrested in China for helping asylum seekers.

To the Governments of the United States, the European Union and its Member States and Japan:

18. Press China, Laos and Vietnam not to deport or repatriate North Korean asylum seekers and intervene when cases arise.

19. Streamline and accelerate the review process for granting asylum to North Koreans and provide resettlement assistance.

20. Increase the broadcasting time of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia from a few hours to 24 hours a day.

Peter Beck wrote this report for the Internaational Crisis Group.

© International Crisis Group