The good work at the Wilson Center’s North Korea International Documentation Center continues with a new dossier edited by Hazel Smith on migration patterns between North Korea and China. The Documentation Center collects and translates newly-uncovered primary documents, in this case thanks to the efforts of Zhihua Shen, former Wilson Center public policy scholar and director of the Center for Cold War International History Studies at East China Normal University.
Smith notes that cross-border movement hardly began with the famine. After Japan had pushed into Manchuria, there really wasn’t a border at all. Much of the traffic was coming south into what is now North Korea, not north into China. Interestingly, the documents show that this traffic continued from the 1950s through the 1970s as North Korean outperformed China, particularly during the Great Leap famine and Cultural Revolution. The documents show Chinese concern for the well-being of those crossing south, but also an interest in regularizing—and probably limiting–the process.
The big find in this trove of documents is the 1964 Protocol between the two countries (precisely, the Protocol between the PRC Ministry of Public Security and the DPRK Social Safety Ministry for Mutual Cooperation in Safeguarding National Security and Social Order in Border Areas, 9 June 1964). Smith summarizes the core provisions of relevance to the debate on “refoulement” of refugees—returning them to their country of origin—which is prohibited under the refugee convention:
“Article Four states that illegal border crossers should be sent back to their country of origin with the important caveat that unless the border crosser is a “criminal,” “those forced to cross the border as a result of disaster will not be treated as illegal border crossers.” Article Five specifies that that the security apparatus of both countries should cooperate actively in apprehending border crossers who are criminals and that these criminals include counterrevolutionaries as well as “basic criminals’ (Article Five).”
The two articles are also reproduced below.
Smith argues that the Chinese have in fact accommodated the large number of North Korean immigrants that live in China, even to the extent of “regularizing the civil status of children born to Chinese nationals and illegal North Korean migrants [and] granting them the essential hukou (household registration) so they are neither stateless nor denied access to social services and education.” We don’t have data on the number of refugees that are effectively regularized, are living in the underground economy in fear of being returned, and those that have been apprehended and returned. But Smith is almost certainly right that the continuing presence of large numbers of refugees—she estimates 50,000—probably testifies to some acquiescence.
The key issue is how the Chinese and North Koreans interpret these articles at any given time. As Smith notes, when the issue is pushed in China’s face, they crack down. But that risk of a future change in policy no doubt pushes some refugees to operate below the radar, which in turn exposes them to the abuses we have found in our refugees surveys.
Equally important is how North Korea interprets the agreement. If unauthorized exit from the country is illegal, then the agreement technically allows North Korean security forces to make representations about any “escaped” individual; such a border-crosser would fall in the “criminal” category. North Korea doesn’t do this all the time as well; there are shifting levels of North Korean acquiescence over time. But the possibility that North Korea could cooperate with Chinese authorities to track down illegal border crossers is always there, again contributing to the insecurity of North Koreans in China.
From The Protocol between the PRC Ministry of Public Security and the DPRK Social Safety Ministry for Mutual Cooperation in Safeguarding National Security and Social Order in Border Areas, 9 June 1964
The two sides will cooperate to prevent illegal border crossings.
(1) Those who do not hold legal documents or have used a crossing point not specified in the documents will be treated as illegal border crossers. However, those who were forced to cross the border as a result of a disaster will not be treated as illegal border crossers.
(2) Illegal border crossers will be returned to the other side with information on their identity and specific situation. However, if [illegal border crossers] commit crimes after crossing the border, then they can be legally handled according to the laws of the country where the crime was committed. The other side should be notified of such situations.
The two sides will actively cooperate in the struggle against criminals.
(1) When counterrevolutionaries (including spies, special agents, saboteurs and conspirators) and basic criminals escape across the border, the other side should be notified. The side receiving notification should take necessary measures to provide assistance.
- Elements that cross the border after committing crimes should be returned.
- For criminals that have escaped to the other side, requests can be made for their investigation, arrest, and related materials. If, upon capture, it is discovered that the criminal has committed even more severe crimes within the country of capture, then, following mutual agreement, the criminal can be kept for handling by the country of capture.
(2) Both sides should exchange intelligence materials related to each other’s security work.
- One side can request that the other side conduct an investigation when it is necessary for the handling of criminal cases. The side receiving the request should conduct an investigation and reply as soon as possible.
(3) For cases involving both countries, both countries should be responsible for their own investigations, [but] contact should be strengthened, intelligence should be exchanged, and cooperation should be active.
(4) Materials should be exchanged when hostile class enemies and dangerous criminals cross the border.
(5) When the identities (political background, family, relatives, surrounding environments, ideological tendencies, etc.) of individuals crossing the border remain unclear, then requests can be sent for the other side to conduct an investigation. The side receiving the request should conduct an investigation and respond.
(6) The other side should be notified of border crossings by third country nationals. Information to be sent should include the identity and movements of third country nationals.
(7) While cooperating in the struggle against criminals, issues involving provinces on both sides of the border and other related problems should be handled by the Representatives for Public Security and Safety from both countries. Other issues can be resolved between China’s Ministry of Public Security and [North] Korea’s Social Safety Ministry.