Recently, 70 North Korean defectors were detained in Tumen’s border detention center in Jilin Province, China. In total, there were 50 adults and 20 underaged individuals ranging from infants to teenagers. They were arrested in various Chinese regions including Yunnan Liaoning and Jilin provinces. Following a month in detention, they were all sent back to North Korea in smaller groups.
A source familiar with North Korean affairs in China who has been observing the local situation told Daily NK on July 25 that the repatriation to North Korea appears to have been almost completed.
Daily NK learned that the 70 North Korean defectors were detained in China and awaiting repatriation a month ago, but did not report the event due to requests from the defectors’ family members in South Korea. It was believed that even if the arrests were revealed, it would be unlikely for the South Korean government to request their release due to diplomatic reasons. Some were concerned that media reports may intensify the punishments faced by the defectors upon their return to North Korea.
A source in a North Korea-related organization in South Korea who asked for anonymity said, “The families of the detained refugees hesitate to campaign for their release as they don’t trust that the government will take specific measures, and also because they are worried that media reports may further antagonize China. Some argued that it would be better to present a petition after the repatriation is completed, showing just how hopeless it is to try and prevent repatriation.”
◆ North Korean defectors still regarded as ‘illegal border crossers’
The ongoing tragedy of forced repatriation of North Korean defectors is due to Chinese law and the limitations of international treaties. China signed the ‘Mutual Cooperation Protocol for the Work of Maintaining National Security and Social Order in the Border Areas,’ in 1986 with North Korea, commonly referred to as the border protocol. Since then, China has been repatriating North Korean defectors under the protocol and its domestic laws.
The international community has been petitioning China to cease the forced repatriation of North Korean defectors in accordance with international laws. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea [COI] stated in its final report in 2014 that member countries should recognize North Korean defectors as refugees and provide international protection, and urged China to stop repatriating North Korean defectors in accordance with the principle of prohibiting forced repatriation specified in the International Refugee and Human Rights Act. China signed the UN Refugee Convention in 1982 and is therefore under obligation not to repatriate refugees who flee from their own countries.
Nevertheless, China refuses to recognize North Korean defectors as refugees. Although it is understood that defectors will be severely punished upon their repatriation, China classifies them as ‘economic migrants’ or ‘illegal border crossers,’ rather than refugees. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Lu Qiang, said during a regular briefing on July 24 that, “North Korean residents who illegally cross Chinese borders are not refugees but criminals who violate Chinese law.”
Experts also believe that attempting to pressure China to stop repatriation based on international laws will have little effect. Lee Kyu Chang, director of unification policy research at the Korea Institute for National Unification said, “The Refugee Convention leaves the recognition of the status of refugees from certain countries to member countries where the refugees are situated. As long as China does not recognize North Korean defectors as refugees, there are limits in using the argument to stop repatriations.”
The fact that the member countries are under no formal obligation to follow measures recommended by the United Nations is also being highlighted as a limitation. The UN has continuously adopted human rights resolutions asking China to stop repatriations, but little progress has been made. Kwon Eun Kyoung, Secretary General of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity [ICNK] said, “The UN recommendation to stop repatriations is not legally binding. Therefore, as long as China refuses, there is no way to enforce the recommendation.”
◆ The South Korean government must take the lead in preventing forced repatriations
Some argue that the South Korean government must take the lead in protecting North Korean defectors in accordance with constitutional and humanitarian principles. Many suggest that it should explicitly request China to cease the repatriations under the principle that there can be no concessions regarding human rights.
However, as there are many diplomatic issues to be resolved with China, including the THAAD issue, the South Korean government is in a difficult position. A spokeperson for the Ministry of Unification remarked, “The Chinese government is aware of the policy of the South Korean government that it wishes to help North Korean defectors in China to safely and quickly enter South Korea.”
“The South Korean government should strongly appeal to China. It will demonstrate South Korea’s diplomatic resolve and its adherence to humanitarian principles,” Kwon said.
Seo Jae Pyong, executive secretary of the Association of North Korean Defectors added, “The government should consistently seek backchannel contact with China to stop the repatriations. China may have concerns that allowing North Korean defectors to stay in China could sabotage its relations with North Korea. Therefore, the South Korean government must provide assurances that it will not make public statements about North Korean defectors, and find ways to safely bring them to South Korea.”
In addition, more robust legal protection for North Korean defectors staying in third countries is needed. North Korean residents are regarded as South Korean citizens according to Article 3 of the South Korean Constitution which states, “The territory of the Republic of Korea includes the entire Korean peninsula and its annexed islands.” North Korean defectors are also protected by the North Korean Human Rights Act enacted in March last year. However, it remains challenging to ensure clear legal protection for defectors hiding in third countries.
The first roadmap for advancing human rights in North Korea established on April 25 by the Ministry of Unification states that, ‘The South Korean government will strengthen diplomatic efforts to secure the safety of overseas North Korean defectors and strengthen diplomatic efforts to prevent human rights violations,’ but the Ministry has yet to develop any specific policies. According to the Ministry of Unification, unlike North Korean residents staying in third countries as dispatched workers, traders, or job-seekers, defectors in foreign countries cannot be protected under the human rights act.
A source in a North Korean human rights organization speaking under condition of anonymity said, “I doubt whether the government will have any impact on human rights in North Korea when it cannot even protect defectors who risk their lives to escape. It is questionable if the new government, which is mostly interested in achieving dialogue with the North Korean regime, will properly address the human rights issue. If President Moon really is a ‘president for human rights,’ the government should at least seek to protect North Korean defectors who flee to third countries.”
Meanwhile, as concerns over the repatriation of North Korean refugees escalate, the South Korean government has sought to reaffirm its opposition to forced repatriation. Cho Joon Hyuk, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said during a regular briefing on July 25, “The South Korean government firmly holds the position that North Korean defectors must not be forcibly sent back to North Korea where they can expect to be severely punished, in accordance with humanitarian principles. The government will adhere to the principle that North Korean defectors who wish to enter South Korea must be accepted unconditionally.”