North Korea Executes 15 Attempting Escape, China Arrests 40 Refugees

June 25, 2008

On February 20, North Korean security agents publicly executed 13 women and 2 men in the town of Juwongu in the county of Onseong in North Hamyung province near the border with China, according to unnamed sources cited in a March 10 North Korea Today report (a newsletter published by Good Friends, a Buddhist NGO based in South Korea).

On February 20, North Korean security agents publicly executed 13 women and 2 men in the town of Juwongu in the county of Onseong in North Hamyung province near the border with China, according to unnamed sources cited in a March 10 North Korea Today report (a newsletter published by Good Friends, a Buddhist NGO based in South Korea). The executions reportedly were carried out on a bridge, as local residents were forced to observe. Local authorities notified all public institutions, enterprises, and neighborhood units that attendance was mandatory and verified attendance on the day of the executions, according to the report.

The report said that the authorities accused the people who were executed of planning to cross the border to seek economic assistance from relatives in China, or of assisting others wishing to cross the border. The report does not mention allegations common in reports of previous executions that the people executed had engaged in espionage or had worked with outside Christian groups. The report implies that authorities may have targeted individuals crossing the border in search of food. Local residents reportedly were "deeply shocked" by the executions and stressed that those who were executed were only trying to survive amid conditions of starvation.

North Korean authorities have said recent executions such as the one on February 20 were carried out in response to a rise in unauthorized crossings, according to the Good Friends' account. Good Friends quoted a North Korean official as saying, "[w]e see people moving [across the border] more busily these days....This is why we carried out the executions. We wanted the people to have the right frame of mind on this issue." On March 5, the BBC also reported on the executions, but noted that "[t]here has been no official word from North Korea on the executions and South Korea's Unification Ministry said it could not confirm the report."

Good Friends also pointed out that last year North Korea increased the sentences for refugees caught crossing the river to China or who are repatriated from China. Beginning in March 2007, the penalty for crossing the river for economic reasons, which North Korea considers a crime, increased from a maximum of three years to five to seven years in prison. According to a March 2008 report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, penalties imposed by North Korea for refugees believed to have had contact with South Korean Christian groups are more severe, including execution in some cases. An unnamed Christian activist working along the border who was cited in a March 6 Time article said that North Korea raised the salaries of border guards in an effort to stop them from accepting bribes from refugees attempting to escape.

According to unnamed sources cited in a March 21 Radio Free Asia report, plainclothes Chinese security agents carried out a massive raid in the city of Shenyang in Liaoning province on March 17, leading to the arrest of around 40 North Korean refugees. The sources also said that Chinese authorities arrested four North Korean refugees on March 5 at a local restaurant in Shenyang and arrested two others attempting to cross the Tumen River, which marks the border between North Korea and Jilin province.

Recent actions by Chinese authorities against North Korean refugees may be part of a larger pre-Olympics crackdown. Suzanne Scholte, chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, told Radio Free Asia on March 21 that Chinese authorities are conducting operations against North Korean refugees "in a manner similar to what they have been doing in Tibet." According to an unnamed diplomat quoted in the March 6 Time article, China recently has increased pressure on North Korea to halt the movement of refugees across the border. "Beijing wanted to nip in the bud, before the Olympics, any chance that the number of refugees would turn into a flood this year," the diplomat said. The diplomat added that China has also complained to Pyongyang that a recent slowing of the manufacturing sector in northeast China has produced an excessively large labor pool to which they do not want further additions. The diplomat's account echoes previous concerns voiced by Chinese authorities that North Korean refugees could pose a threat to social stability and economic growth.

Fulfilling its obligations under international law, however, would not require China to permanently absorb these refugees into Chinese society. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)seeks to resettle all North Korean refugees who enter China to third countries, and does not insist that Beijing allow them to settle permanently within Chinese territory. South Korea grants automatic citizenship to North Korean defectors under its Constitution and the United States accepts North Korean refugees for resettlement under its own North Korean Human Rights Act. These two countries provide clear alternatives to repatriation that the Chinese authorities have failed to utilize, in spite of the urging of the UNHCR to do so.

A March 2008 survey of North Koreans hiding in China conducted by the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea found that a large majority of refugees do not wish to remain in China. Only 14.3 percent of a sample of 1,247 refugees indicated a desire to remain in China permanently. A much larger number, 64.3 percent, preferred to resettle in South Korea while 19.1 percent expressed a preference to live in the United States. Regardless, Beijing's repatriation policy and its insistence that undocumented North Korean border crossers are "illegal economic immigrants" contravene its obligations under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. As a signatory state to the Convention, China is expressly prohibited from engaging in repatriation or refoulement of refugees and is obligated to facilitate resettlement of North Korean refugees within its own territory or to a third country. China's refusal to formally recognize North Koreans who cross the border as refugees does not diminish their obligation to treat them as such under international law.

As noted in the 2006 CECC Annual Report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea concluded in a 2005 report that the widespread detention, abuse, and execution of repatriated refugees by Pyongyang provide a clear basis under international law for the recognition of North Koreans who crossed the border in search of sustenance as "refugees sur place." In other words, although some North Koreans may not meet the definition of "refugee" at the time of crossing, the harsh punishment meted out to them upon repatriation nevertheless necessitates that they be designated as refugees. A significant portion of North Koreans cross the border in order to escape political persecution, which renders them refugees in the first instance. China bases its policy of repatriating North Koreans on a 1961 treaty with the DPRK and a subsequent 1986 border protocol rather than on international law concerning refugees that requires China to offer protection.

For more information on North Korean Refugees in China, see pages 124-126 of the CECC's 2007 Annual Report.