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]