Chinese Authorities Reportedly Repatriate North Korean Refugees

April 17, 2012

In early March 2012, South Korean news outlets and CNN reported claims that Chinese authorities had repatriated approximately 30 North Korean refugees who were detained in northeast China. The reported repatriations occurred during the 100-day mourning period for the late Kim Jong-il, a time during which his son and new leader of North Korea vowed to "exterminate three generations" of any family with a member caught defecting. The fate of those repatriated or their family members is not known. China's policy of considering all North Korean refugees economic migrants violates international law to which China itself is subject and which prohibits China from returning refugees who face the risk of political persecution. The case of the North Korean refugees prompted international concern over China's repatriation policy, including from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Chinese Authorities Reportedly Repatriate North Korean Refugees Detained in China

In February 2012, international news media organizations reported on China's detention of dozens of North Korean refugees held in Liaoning and Jilin provinces, as international human rights advocates appealed to the Chinese government not to forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) (See Chosun Ilbo, 14 February 12; Korea Herald, 14 February 12; Los Angeles Times, 14 February 12). According to the February 14 Korea Herald article, at least two dozen North Korean refugees allegedly faced forced repatriation after Chinese authorities detained them in early February. South Korean media outlets have reported that family members may face execution if the refugees are forcibly returned to the DPRK (see Korea Times, 20 February 12; Yonhap News Agency, 17 February 12; Arirang News, 20 February 12; KBS World Radio, 23 February 12). According to a February 22 Korea Herald editorial, in January, Kim Jong-un, the "supreme leader" of the DPRK, reportedly threatened to "exterminate three generations" of any family with a member caught defecting during the 100-day mourning period for the late Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-il reportedly died on December 17, 2011, and the 100-day mourning period lasted until the last week of March 2012 (AP, via the Boston Globe, 24 March 12).

In early March 2012, Yonhap News Agency and CNN reported that Chinese officials forcibly repatriated the detained North Korean refugees. According to a March 9, CNN article, a South Korean official claimed that Chinese authorities may have repatriated approximately 30 North Korean refugees. A March 10 Yonhap News Agency article, reaffirmed this claim, but also noted there had been no "government-level confirmation" of the repatriations. At the time of this writing, the fate of those reportedly repatriated or their family members was not available.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs Claims North Koreans "Illegal" Economic Migrants

Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesman Hong Lei reiterated at a February 22, 2012, press conference the Chinese government's longstanding view that North Koreans entering China without documents "are not refugees," but rather "illegal migrants" who "come to China because of economic reasons," according to a transcript of his remarks (in Chinese) on the MFA Web site. Hong did not explain how China had determined that the North Koreans in question were economic migrants or address concerns that they faced political punishment upon return. (Hong's discussion of North Korean refugees was also apparently omitted from the MFA's English transcript of the press conference.) The spokesman said, "In accordance with domestic law, international law and humanitarian principles, China has consistently handled the illegal immigration of Koreans problem, prudently and properly, to conform with the interests of all parties and with international practice." According to a February 29, 2012, Caijing article, Hong Lei said, "There is no good reason to define them as refugees."

The Chinese government's position on repatriating North Korean refugees contravenes China's obligations under international law. As noted in the CECC 2011 Annual Report, the Chinese government continues to detain and forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees to the DPRK, despite substantial evidence that such refugees face persecution upon return. This policy contravenes obligations under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention) and its 1967 Protocol (1967 Protocol) (available at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Web site here), to which China has acceded. Article 33 (1) of the 1951 Convention states, "No Contracting State shall expel or return ('refouler') a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." The Chinese government bases its policy of repatriating North Koreans on a 1961 treaty with the DPRK and a subsequent 1986 border protocol. (For more information see "China: Background Paper on the Situation of North Koreans in China," 1 January 05, a WRITENET report commissioned by UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Protection Information Section. WRITENET is a network of researchers and writers who write on human rights, forced migration, and ethnic and political conflict.)

In addition, the North Korean government's imprisonment and torture of repatriated North Koreans renders North Koreans in China refugees "sur place," or those who fear persecution upon return to their country of origin. (See Articles 94 to 96 of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.) According to a March 23, 2006, statement to media by Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at the conclusion of his mission to China, the Commissioner explained refugees "sur place" and acknowledged that he had discussed the issue with Chinese officials:

  1. "What that means is that in some circumstances, some of these people might become refugees, and for different reasons. The most frequent reason—when we deal with this problem not only here but all over the world—is when there is a risk of deportation back to their countries of origin and this is associated with the risk of persecution in those areas covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention. In those situations, these people become what are called 'refugees sur-place.' And they become people in need of protection that will, of course, justify our intervention. That was obviously at the very core of our discussions."

International Concern Over China's Policy of Repatriating North Koreans to the DPRK

The recent case involving the North Korean refugees in China prompted international expressions of concern over China’s treatment of these refugees in particular, as well as China’s repatriation policy in general.

  • On February 24, 2012, UNHCR urged all parties concerned to find a viable humanitarian solution in the case of a group of North Koreans who were arrested in China in early February, according to a statement released by UNHCR.
  • On February 27, 2012, South Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Bong-hyun delivered a keynote speech at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Geneva, in which he "implicitly urged the Chinese government to honor its international obligations" not to repatriate refugees if they face persecution (Chosun Ilbo, 29 February 12). (For a video of the keynote speech, see the UNHRC Web site here.)
  • On March 9, 2012, in a joint press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed U.S. opposition to the repatriation of North Korean refugees: "We urge every country to act according to international obligations. ... We believe that refugees should not be repatriated and subjected once again to the dangers that they fled from. The treatment of North Korean refugees is an issue on which we have ongoing engagement with our partners, both in Korea and in China. We had Ambassador Davies raise our concerns about the North Korean refugees detained in China with senior Chinese officials when he was last in China in February." (U.S. Department of State Web site.)
  • On March 12, 2012, Ambassador Robert King, the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, shared concerns of Marzuki Darusman, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, over the North Korean refugees: "[W]e share the Special Rapporteur's deep concerns about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. We urge the DPRK to end the punishment and imprisonment of North Koreans who have sought asylum abroad as well as their family members." (U.S. Department of State Web site.)
  • On March 12, 2012, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK expressed concern at a session of the UN Human Rights Council over the safety and protection of "asylum-seekers" and called on all states "to adhere to the principle of non-refoulement" and their obligation of providing international protection to asylum-seekers (Yonhap News Agency, 13 March 12). (For the video, see the UNHRC Web site here.)
  • On March 14, 2012, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told "related-countries" that he would like to see the issue of forced repatriation resolved through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (Chosun Ilbo, 16 March 12). Ban said that he had conveyed his concerns to member states and "sought cooperation as best I can in my position."

On March 5, 2012, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) held an emergency hearing to review the issue of North Korean refugees at which members urged Chinese officials to desist in forcibly repatriating detained North Koreans to the DPRK. The Commission hearing addressed reported detentions of North Korean refugees and the factors driving North Koreans to flee to China. Witnesses also addressed the legality of China's forced repatriation of North Koreans and relevant humanitarian concerns. (Online transcripts of statements and video of the hearing are available here.)

For more information on the treatment of North Korean refugees in China, see Section II—North Korean Refugees in China in the CECC 2011 Annual Report.