Thousands of North Koreans have escaped from the world’s most closed and brutal totalitarian regime, fleeing famine, oppression and persecution. Many then live a precarious existence in China, as stateless refugees in hiding, as orphaned or abandoned children, or as trafficked women. China has a policy of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees, in total disregard of the international principle of non-refoulement* and in violation of international law.
China claims these people are economic migrants, not refugees, but due to the consequences they face upon return to North Korea, all these people – whether they fled for economic or political or religious reasons – count as “refugees sur place” under the UN’s definition.
If sent back to North Korea, refugees face detention, torture and even execution as illegal border-crossers upon their return to North Korea, where the regime takes a dim view of defectors. In 2010, North Korea made the crime of defection a “crime of treachery against the nation”. Under its new leader, Kim Jong Un, the penalties have become even harsher: Border guards have been ordered to shoot anyone escaping across the frontier to China. During the official period of mourning for his father, Kim Jong Un announced that the penalty for defecting during the mourning period was the execution of the defector’s entire family.
International law prohibits the forcible repatriation, either directly or indirectly, of any individuals to a country where they are at risk of facing persecution, torture or death. In 1988 China ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which prohibits the forcible return of people to states where they face a substantial risk of being tortured. China is also a state party to the UN Refugee Convention.
Despite its obligations under these conventions, China has also prevented the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) from access to North Koreans in China. And it considers all undocumented North Koreans in China as economic migrants, rather than as asylum-seekers.
[Footnote: * Non-refoulement is a principle of international law which forbids rendering a true victim of persecution to their persecutor; persecutor generally referring to a state-actor (country/government). The principle of non-refoulement is the cornerstone of asylum and of international refugee law. Non-refoulement is applied to the protection of refugees from being returned to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.]