North Korean refugees are once again endangered by China’s policies of forcible repatriation.
Taking advantage of North Korea’s partially reopened border, China is believed to have deported roughly 50 individuals back to North Korea. Human Rights Watch recently reported that more than 1,000 North Korean refugees are currently held in detention and also at risk of deportation.
Vulnerable North Koreans face systematic repression upon their return to North Korea. A 2014 report from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) found that most of those returned are thrown into prison camps, ordinary or political, where they will most likely be subject to torture, malnourishment and forced labor. China’s actions demonstrate a willingness to appease Pyongyang even if it means violating international law.
The U.N. officially classifies North Koreans as “refugees sur place,” meaning that any nation that deports North Koreans is in violation of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and the U.N. Convention Against Torture. As a signatory to the Refugee Convention, China violates it every time it repatriates a North Korean.
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China’s actions come as refugee resettlement for North Koreans has hit a record low. In 2020, only 229 North Koreans were resettled in South Korea, down from 1,047 in 2021. In the second quarter of 2021, a mere two people were resettled in the South.
Defections are low, due in no small part to the Kim regime’s brutality. At the start of the pandemic, North Korea created buffer zones along its border and gave its soldiers shoot-on-sight orders for individuals entering or leaving the country. These measures mean that, despite possible indications of famine, fewer people are willing to risk exiting the country.
North Korean refugees are betrayed with increased frequency by the third countries they are required to pass through in order to get to freedom in South Korea.
In December 2019, Vietnam arrested and promptly deported three North Koreans. Last year, Thailand gave in to Pyongyang’s demands to deport 13 North Koreans. Fair-weather friends in Southeast Asia have been unreliable partners in ensuring North Koreans reach safety, but conditions inside North Korea are so grave that defectors often take the risk anyway.
Another factor is the changing political landscape in South Korea.
Moon Jae-In’s government, favoring friendly relations with the North, has failed to intervene to prevent third-country deportation. Instead, it is spending its resources auditing South Korean human rights organizations and forbidding them from sending leaflets into the North.
The United States must place more pressure on China and other third-country destinations to uphold their obligations under international law. The U.N. COI made clear that China could be held accountable for violating its obligations under the U.N. Refugee Convention.
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The U.S. should do more to condemn Beijing for its failure to uphold its obligations under the convention. Equally important, the U.S. must press Seoul to be a more reliable partner in protecting North Koreans seeking a better life in the South. Timely and consistent diplomatic pressure has been proven successful in securing the release of imprisoned refugees. American diplomats saved 13 defectors after protesting plans for their deportation in 2020. Human rights organizations based in the EU saved 20 more defectors in Vietnam scheduled to be deported last year.
Time is of the essence for the 1,000 or more North Korean refugees currently trapped in China. The U.S. should consider whether it can pressure Beijing not to forcibly repatriate these refugees and find ways to ensure that North Koreans find safety, in South Korea or within our own borders.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times