High Commissioner for Refugees Visits China, Objects to North Korean Repatriation

December 15, 2006

On March 23, Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), concluded a three-day visit to China, during which he expressed his "clear objections" to news that the Chinese government had repatriated a North Korean refugee in breach of its obligations under the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention), according to a March 23 press release available through the Web site of the UNHCR. Guterres, the first UNHCR to visit China in nine years, met with Chinese officials to discuss the government's responses to population displacement across international borders and its efforts to establish a system of political asylum.

Guterres reported in his March 23 press release that his agency is "in close contact" with China's State Council, which is currently drafting national refugee regulations. Guterres said that his agency would be "fully engaged in supporting the Chinese authorities to make sure that this legislation is in full compliance with international law." Article 33 of the 1951 Convention, which China acceded to on September 24, 1982, stipulates that states may not expel or force a refugee to return to a place where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Although Guterres commended the Chinese government for a "very open attitude of dialogue" during his visit, statements by both parties suggest that they continue to disagree on the classification of North Koreans in China. At a March 21 press conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Qin Gang reiterated the Chinese government's position that all North Koreans in China are "illegal migrants" and not refugees. In his press release, however, Guterres affirmed that the 1951 Convention classifies as "refugees" North Koreans who risk persecution upon return to their country of origin.

In February, Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN Special Rapporteur for North Korean human rights, similarly urged the international community to recognize the broader definition of "refugee," which would include North Koreans who flee their country for any reason, and possess a well-founded fear of persecution upon repatriation. A November 2002 Human Rights Watch report on North Koreans in China noted that Chinese officials forcibly repatriate North Korean defectors pursuant to a 1986 border protocol between the two governments. Upon return, North Korean defectors are subject to severe criminal punishment. In February, Chinese officials repatriated North Korean asylum seeker Kim Chun-hee, whose true name is Lee Chun-shil, according to reports by the Korea Times and Chosun Daily. Authorities detained the woman on December 2, 2005, outside a Korean international school in Beijing where she was posing as a Korean mother seeking enrollment for her children. A Korean international school in Dalian had previously turned her away when she sought shelter from the school's administrators in November 2005. Administrators at an international school in Tianjin turned away nine North Koreans seeking safe passage to South Korea in September 2005. According to both reports, the Chinese government's policy has been to repatriate North Koreans who enter international school premises. In a March 30, 2006, statement, the White House expressed "grave concern" over China's repatriation of Kim and called upon the Chinese government "not to return North Korean asylum seekers without allowing UNHCR access to these vulnerable individuals."

For more information on North Korean refugees in China, see Section VII of the CECC's 2005 Annual Report.