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. 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.
Both China and North Korea have increased the number of their border guards and added more barbed wire fencing to their common border. China has expanded CCTV surveillance and increased checkpoints on roads leading away from the border. Pyongyang has cracked down on networks aiding escaping citizens.
China regularly violates its U.N. Refugee Convention 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. 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.