Category: China

North Korean defectors currently living in China

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Most North Koreans who enter China do so by crossing the Tumen River into Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where 854,000 ethnic Koreans with Chinese citizenship reside.

The capital of Yanbian, Yanji, has a population of 350,000 of whom 210,000 are ethnic Koreans.

These population figures suggest that the upper estimates of “300,000 North Koreans living in China” are therefore implausible, since a large portion of 300,000 North Koreans living illegally [in this area of China] would find it difficult to live underground in a city of 350,000 …and would be even more conspicuous in rural areas where strangers are easily identified.

In testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations of the US Congress in November 2003, Refugees International (RI) endorsed an estimate of 60-100,000 North Koreans living in Yanbian based on the findings of a one-week visit to the prefecture in June 2003.

The lack of data is symptomatic of the overall vulnerability of the North Korean population in China. The Chinese authorities themselves either have no firm grasp of the scale of the inward-migration, or refuse to make public data that may be available. Church networks and humanitarian organizations in Yanbian make some effort to monitor the scale of border crossings, but do not publish these data for fear of jeopardizing their operations. Read more

[International Journal of Korean Unification Studies]

Where sympathy for North Korea defectors lies

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Most North Koreans seeking sanctuary in China cross the Tumen River into Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. With its large population of Korean-Chinese, North Koreans have a chance of finding people with whom they can communicate and who are willing to provide them shelter and economic support.

Despite the national Chinese policy of arrest and deportation, local implementation in Yanbian is tempered by intra-ethnic solidarity that Korean-Chinese officials feel for their deprived brothers and sisters from North Korea. Furthermore, many people in Yanbian either have direct experience, or have learned of their parents’ experiences, of being sheltered in North Korea during the political chaos and economic dislocation during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. These experiences generate sympathy for the plight of North Koreans.

If individuals cross the border to survive and present no threat to public safety, the local authorities and police tend to look the other way, often for months. Indeed, several North Koreans told Refugees International that they received assistance from border guards when they first crossed into China.

However, North Koreans live under constant fear of arrest and deportation while in China. They have no realistic options to live freely and meet their basic needs, and the few courageous individuals and organizations seeking to provide protection and assistance, whether Korean-Chinese, South Korean, or the rare few from outside the region, are themselves under constant pressure from the Chinese authorities to curtail their activities or risk expulsion.

[International Journal of Korean Unification Studies]

The threat to North Korean refugees as a result of China’s surveillance technology

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A Human Rights Watch report detailed a mass surveillance app being used by Chinese police in Xinjiang to monitor the movements and activities of the territory’s Uighur Muslims, including the hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of those being held in political “re-education” facilities. In effect, the app allows the police to monitor the Chinese people’s every move.

As the data passes through the app, it screens and analyzes for so-called suspicious activity. According to the Human Rights Watch, “suspicious activity” encompasses actions as benign as leaving one’s house via the back door rather than the front–or any behavior that breaks from daily activities.

China’s embrace of oppressive surveillance technology will doubtless affect more than just its Muslim population. One especially vulnerable group is North Korean refugees.

While the total number of North Korean defectors currently in China are unknown, some estimate that between 100,000 to 300,000 currently remain in hiding. Nearly all refugees from the North must pass through China in order to reach ultimate freedom in South Korea. These refugees rely on underground networks—primarily made up of Christian missionaries and smugglers—to guide them along their treacherous journeys.

Escape from the brutal Kim regime depends on anonymity, invisibility, and use of the underground system. Invisibility is essential due to Beijing’s agreement with Pyongyang to repatriate all North Koreans found in China. Upon repatriation, North Koreans who accept help from missionaries or who convert to Christianity while in China face particularly harsh treatment. The Commission of Inquiry noted that refugees are usually asked whether they had contact with Christian missionaries; those who did face harsher consequences. The Commission report found that Christians are uniquely persecuted among religious groups in North Korea. Open Doors USA has identified Pyongyang as the world’s worst persecutor of Christians.

A 2014 report from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry documented systematic repression of North Koreans returned from China. Most are thrown in ordinary prison camps or political prison camps where they will most likely be subject to torture, malnourishment, and forced labor. Many pregnant North Korean women are forced to abort their children, often without anesthesia, sometimes by having a soldier stand on their pregnant stomach. Should the child survive the abortion, the mother may be forced to watch her baby be smothered to death. Conditions are brutal for all returned refugees, but they are especially grave for women.

[Forbes]

What happens to North Korean defectors after being forcibly returned from China

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Leaving North Korea without permission is a criminal offense. So North Koreans forcibly returned after fleeing face incarceration in political prison camps (kwanliso), ordinary prison camps (kyohwaso, or re-education correctional facilities), short-term forced-labor camps (rodong danllyeindae), temporary detention facilities (jipkyulso), or possible execution.

Research by Human Right Watch and other groups has found pervasive abuses and horrid conditions in North Korea’s political prison camps, including meager rations that keep detainees on the edge of starvation, almost no medical care, lack of adequate shelter and clothes, repeated mistreatment that includes sexual assault and torture by guards, and summary executions.

Yet China routinely forcibly repatriates North Koreans, labeling them as illegal “economic migrants”. Forcing North Korean refugees back to their country constitutes refoulement, that is, sending someone back to a place where they would face threats to their lives or freedom. As a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, as well as to the 1984 Convention against Torture, China is specifically obligated not to force back anyone who would be at risk of persecution or torture upon return.

For North Koreans who are returned, if not sent to political prisoner camps, authorities may instead impose sentences of 2 to 15 years of forced labor in ordinary prison camps. Inmates in ordinary prison camps face forced labor in dangerous working conditions, repeated mistreatment by guards, and little nutritious food or medical care.

A former senior official in the North Korean state security service (bowibu), who previously worked on the border and received North Koreans sent back from China, told Human Rights Watch that officials under his command tortured every returnee to find out where they went in China, whom they contacted, and what they had done while outside North Korea.

The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea found that crimes against humanity, including torture, execution, enslavement, and sexual violence, are committed against prisoners and people forcibly returned to North Korea from China.

[Human Rights Watch]

North Korean woman said she was “living like an animal” in her country

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A woman who defected from North Korea last year planned and executed her escape on her own, she said, because North Korean authorities have caught and killed most of the brokers who used to smuggle people over the border to South Korea.

She was fed up with “living like an animal” in her country where she struggled daily to survive.

To make her escape, she crossed the frozen river that runs along the China border, climbed over a barbed wire fence, and walked for two hours through knee-deep piles of snow in the middle of the night. In one hand she carried poison, in case she was caught by soldiers guarding the border.

Eventually she came upon a small village, where she hoped to find other North Koreans who had escaped and would be sympathetic to her cause. She approached a house with a light in the window, and found a Chinese man instead. She begged to make just one phone call to friends of friends living in South Korea. “The man was very kind, he offered me food and offered me a warm place to stay, and so I was able to eat and he helped me contact my friends.”

She eventually made her way to South Korea, and was astounded to find hot and cold running water, and working toilets. “The toilets — there is water in there, and it cleans out right away. That was just the most amazing thing.”

She recently made it to the U.S. “I [was] shocked when I was in South Korea, but when I came to America, … it just blew my mind. I grew up being told Americans are all like wolves, and our enemy that we must destroy, and I was bombarded with that kind of education,” she added. “But when I actually came and met Americans, they were very warm and kind people.”

Now in the States, she plans to pursue a career in medicine, and hopes one day to return to her neighborhood in a free North Korea. “I believe this is not just my dream, but it’s a dream of all those people who escape from North Korea, and also the people who still suffer there,” she said.

[The Daily Caller]

The road to life in South Korea was not an easy one

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As a former North Korean military officer, Kim Yong-Hwa says he knows all too well the tribulations facing the thousands of defectors on the run for their lives from the repressive Kim regime of North Korea. Now in his mid-60s, he spent over nine years imprisoned in three different countries during his decade-plus journey to true freedom.

After being accused of disloyalty to an authoritarian regime, his journey began with the intention of committing suicide. But instead of taking his own life, Kim told The Christian Post that he ultimately discovered the truth that the Kim Jong Un regime had kept hidden from North Koreans — Christianity.

After walking through much of China, Kim finally arrived in Vietnam but was arrested there trying to climb onto a commercial vessel from South Korea. When only days away from being repatriated, he hit a Vietnamese policeman with a tray of food which landed him a two-year jail sentence in Vietnam. It was during this time, that Kim was exposed to Christianity through an interpreter.

He eventually made it to South Korea, but he was again imprisoned for three years on allegations that he was a North Korean “spy.” After two years in a South Korean prison, Kim eventually migrated to Japan where the Japanese government was also told that he was an “international spy,” and where Kim was then confined to a prison camp for three years.

He returned to South Korea in 2001, and in 2005, officially launched the North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association, a ministry that helps other North Korean defectors facing a similar situation in China find their way to safety. There are an estimated 230,000 North Korean defectors wandering around China at risk of being arrested and repatriated to North Korea, where they could face execution or life in labor camps for the crime of defection.

[The Christian Post]

Human Rights Watch speak in defense of North Korean defectors detained in China

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China should not forcibly deport seven detained North Koreans who face a grave risk of torture and other abuses if returned to North Korea, Human Rights Watch said.

South Koreans assisting relatives of the group’s members told Human Rights Watch that the three women, three men, and a pre-teen girl in the group are being detained in Liaoning province. Some of the group left North Korea in recent weeks and others have lived for several years in China’s border area. Chinese authorities apprehended them on April 28, 2019.

“China should not send these seven people back to North Korea where they face torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and other horrors,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Beijing should immediately allow them to travel to a third country.”

“China should end its complicity with North Korean rights violations by ending the practice of forcing back fleeing North Koreans,” Robertson said. “China should protect these seven North Koreans, both complying with its international obligations and sending Pyongyang a message that it won’t ignore North Korea’s abuses.”

[Human Rights Watch]

North Korea waiting for Trump to blink … or leave office?

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It used to be North Korea that was facing maximum pressure, not exerting it. More recently, Pyongyang conducted a second ballistic missile test in a week, escalating tensions with Washington.

With Pyongyang ramping up the pressure, Trump will eventually have to blink — one way or another. Either he returns to his policy of “maximum pressure,” threatening North Korea with potential military action if it continues missile and potentially even nuclear testing, or he agrees to reopen the topic of sanctions relief.

North Korea’s current hand is a strong one, even if the potential risks of overplaying it are very real. And Trump can likely not afford a rapid escalation of tensions that would be a tacit admission that his entire strategy towards Pyongyang has been a failure.

Washington’s two other levers for pulling on North Korea, its neighbors in China and South Korea, are also likely not feasible. China is not going to exert any pressure on Kim on Trump’s behalf in the middle of a trade war, and the North Korean leader has made it clear that he blames South Korea in part for the general worsening of relations, particularly Seoul’s decision to go ahead with recent joint military drills with the US.

Pyongyang has also gained a solid new backer: Russia. According to Michael Elleman, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a UK-based think tank with ties to the defense industry, the missiles used it Pyongyang’s recent tests “look remarkably like those of a Russian-produced Iskander.” While he said it was possible North Korea had imported the missile from elsewhere or matched the Russian design, the most likely explanation is that it bought them direct from Moscow. It is surely no coincidence that Pyongyang’s tests came off the back of Kim Jong Un’s successful first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Pyongyang may also be playing a longer game. It has shown in the past that it is perfectly willing to wait out difficult US Presidents and wait for a change in leadership that will give it a chance to restart negotiations and earn more time to shore up its military capabilities. While no US leader has ever sat down with their North Korean counterpart before Trump, now that the precedent has been made, Pyongyang will know that future Presidents will not see it as such an impossible step.

[CNN]

North Korea planted GPS tracking device in child’s toy to locate her parents

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Agents of North Korea reportedly planted a GPS tracking device in the toy frog of a young girl they knew was about to defect to her parents who had already fled and were now living in South Korea.

Testimony delivered on Thursday, provided by the Caleb Mission, an organization which supports defectors and refugees,  revealed that North Korea used a GPS device implanted in a child’s toy. The parents of the girl had successfully defected to the South, and were attempting to orchestrate her escape.

Before the girl left North Korea for China, a man gave the nine-year-old girl a stuffed frog and said: “This is a gift for you. Give it to your mom,” The Chosun Ilbo reported.

After she arrived at the Chinese safe house, the trafficker inspected the frog and discovered the GPS tracking device inside of it. Alarmed, he left the device undisturbed, fearing he might trigger a raid of the house if he removed it.

According to The Chosun Ilbo, from testimony delivered by defectors it was revealed that North Korea is also using GPS devices to capture traffickers who help people escape the regime.

[Newsweek]

Activists urge China to not repatriate North Korean defectors

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Activists have been urging China not to repatriate seven North Koreans who were detained in an eastern Chinese province after leaving their homeland. The group, which includes a nine-year-old girl, fled North Korea and were then detained by Chinese authorities in the northeast province of Liaoning, according to activists.

China regularly sends defectors back to North Korea, where they face punishment including forced labor, imprisonment, torture, or execution. According to a 2017 Human Rights Watch report, China has increased the number of guards and laid more barbed wire fencing along the border.

The nine-year-old girl’s mother, who left North Korea several years ago and now lives in South Korea, participated in a recent demonstration in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. “I’m worried about my young daughter and her safety … it’s been three years since I’ve seen my daughter,” said the woman, her voice quivering.

Though not common, China has in the past released North Korean defectors. In 2018, China freed 30 defectors, following international pressure, according to South Korean media reports. Many activists complain North Korean human rights have become less of a priority amid negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Though China has signed the United Nations refugee convention, it does not recognize North Koreans as refugees. It instead sees them as illegal economic migrants.

[VoA]