Human Rights of North Korean Defectors in Dire Straits

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Dadong, North Korea. Image by Joseph A Ferris III/Flickr.

On August 3rd, South Korean human rights activist Kim Young-hwan and three colleagues held a press conference accusing Chinese authorities of detainment and torture due to their work with North Korean refugees. China has denied the allegations.

The activists were staying in Dalien, a major city in the southern Chinese province of Liaoning, assisting North Korean defectors and raising awareness of the dire human rights situation in North Korea (the original cause for their arrest). Mr. Kim said that he and his colleagues were beaten and tortured with electricity for “threatening the national security of China,” that both the Chinese and the North Korean governments were clandestinely engaged in their arrest and torture, and that the Chinese government intentionally delayed a consulate meeting.

Torture and harsh treatment for human rights activists such as Kim Young-hwan – who is a former supporter of North Korea’s first leader Kim Il-sung, but later became disillusioned with the regime’s absolutism and human rights abuses – highlight the tensions between South Korea and China as well as the ill treatment of North Korean defectors by the Chinese government.

Key Conclusions

North Korean refugees are facing a dire situation in many neighboring countries in Asia. Some countries are reluctant to grant refugee status for economic reasons and China adamantly enforces a bilateral agreement with North Korea to deny so-called “defectors” refugee status in China.

Absent such status, North Korean defectors are considered illegal immigrants and are frequently sent back to North Korea, where they face serious punishment. Keen to avoid repatriation, North Korean refugees desperately look for alternatives. The risks are particularly severe for women who regularly become victims of forced marriage, forced labor, and prostitution.

Neighboring countries, in particular China, should therefore urgently meet their obligations under international treaties and grant refugee status to defectors from North Korea to ensure their safety and wellbeing.


The situation of North Korean defectors in China is extremely grim. China regards them as illegal border crossers that should be sent back to North Korea and repudiates the requests of the international community to acknowledge them as refugees. Their illegal status intensifies their vulnerability, because compulsory repatriation to North Korea entails severe punishments, making defectors cling to whatever harsh alternatives they have, such as hiding and waiting for assistance from the South Korean government and NGOs, or escaping to adjacent states such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. This latter alternative often requires hiring assistance from brokers or volunteering to be trafficked or indentured as a means to cross the border.

The risks for women are particularly high. They are in serious danger of being trafficked for prostitution, forced labor, and forced marriage. According to the “2012 Trafficking in Persons Report” released by the US State Department in June 2012, there are thousands of undocumented North Koreans in northeast China, and about 70 percent of them are women. But it is impossible for them to receive aid from the Chinese government. Female defectors are therefore easily exposed to sexual violence and forced marriage to meet demands caused by China’s gender imbalance.

The number of North Korean defectors crossing the Chinese border is decreasing since Kim Jung-un has reinforced border security. The annual influx of North Koreans into South Korea had long been an increasing trend, but it sharply dropped by about 50 percent relative to 2011 during the first six months of Kim Jung-un’s leadership. Brokers organizing the escape from North Korea are becoming more organized as the business has become more lucrative due to the increased risk. Some Chinese human trafficking organizations are traveling to North Korea to lure young women by promising a better life out of poverty, only to sell them for $500 to Chinese farmers in need of housewives. But it is not possible to get official assistance from the North Korean government because the North Korean government regards escape as treason. In its “2012 Trafficking in Persons Report,” the US State Department classified North Korea as a state which “reported no efforts to identify or assist trafficking victims” and ranked it “TIER 3” – the worst ranking – in ten consecutive years since 2003. The human rights of North Korean defectors are in a deadlock. (Source: Ministry of Unification, South Korea)

Diplomatic conflict about the defector issue is not likely to be solved easily. China has been avoiding any disputes with North Korea and is disregarding the human right infringements suffered by North Korean defectors. China adamantly repatriates North Korean defectors despite continuous requests from South Korea for China to reconsider its policy. China, in turn, presses the South Korean government to stop assisting North Korean defectors. In early August of 2012, the US Senate passed a bill addressing the human rights issue in North Korea and extended the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. But the United States cannot guarantee the bill’s effectiveness unless China decides to follow.


The Chinese government should ensure the humanitarian treatment of North Korean defectors and grant human rights activists, like Kim Young-hwan, and NGOs permission to assist vulnerable refugee populations from North Korea. China should also urgently revisit its policy of not acknowledging North Korean defectors in China as refugees based on the bilateral agreement it enacted with North Korea in 1960. China joined both the “United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR)” in 1951 and the “Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugee (also known as the New York Protocol)” in 1967, and therefore has treaty obligations to recognize refugees and treat them humanely.

Other adjacent states should equally provide assistance to North Korean defectors and work together with international institutions and NGOs. According to UNHCR’s report ”Global Trends 2011,” North Korean defectors who were given refugee status around the world (not including South Korea) add up to 1,052, with most in the United Kingdom (603) and Germany (64). But most of the other states close to Korea do not approve of granting refugee status for economic reasons. Considering the special situation of North Korean defectors, the criteria for granting refugee status should be reviewed from a broader perspective, expanding the range of application for humanitarian purposes.

Finally, North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, seems to be relatively more open than his predecessors, as was demonstrated by the recent internal economic reforms. Although this is unlikely for the time being, one would hope that North Korea devote equal attention to human rights standards and international expectations as it does for its endeavors on economic reform.

Cheong Ju Kim is a graduate student at Columbia University completing his Master of International Affairs. This article was originally posted on the blog Global Observatory of ISN partner  the International Peace Institute.


For additional reading on this topic please see:
Strangers at Home: North Koreans in the South
Political Attitudes Under Repression: Evidence from North Korean Refugees
North Korean Refugees in China and Human Rights Issues

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured editorial content and Security Watch.

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