Chinese Repatriation of Refugees

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Jaesung Ryu (East Asia Institute)



One of the central points we keep repeating is that the North Korean refugees are—well--refugees. They have legitimate fear of persecution on return to their home country because of what must be considered a “political” belief (as the Refugee Convention requires): that they should enjoy the freedom to leave their own country. Moreover, the Refugee Convention—to which China is a signatory—specifically singles out repatriation (or “refoulement” in refugee-speak) as a no-no for quite obvious reasons.

All that may seem clear to most, but the Chinese have consistently denied it, treating the refugees as “economic migrants.” Even the South Korean government and public has had a hard time getting its head fully around the refugee concept given the complex nationality issue, as we pointed out in an earlier post. But at least South Korean authorities have consistently issued formal diplomatic demarches to Beijing when threatened deportations are looming; AFP reported on South Korean reaction to an earlier round-up in October.

The issue is once again rearing its ugly head as China contemplates the return of a number of North Koreans. Goodfriends #437 (released on January 11 and not yet posted on the English-language website) reported that Chinese authorities had repatriated ten border-crossers early in the year.

But more recent reports are getting much more attention.  Amnesty International reports on 21 refugees picked up by Chinese police on 8 February in separate locations in the city of Shenyang. A distressing detail is that “some” are believed to have had contact with members of a South Korean NGO that was helping them to exit. The North Korean authorities have periodically relaxed punishment for those crossing for purely economic motives, but contact with a South Korean organization is paramount to treason. Dong-a reports on a larger (and probably overlapping) group of 33 detained at various locations, and hinted at a broader crackdown on the part of the Chinese.

And just to be clear, the Chinese collaboration in returning these defectors is not arms length, but involves collaboration with DPRK State Security. In one of the crackdowns DPRK State Security even tracked cell phone signals by forcing those who were captured to make calls to other parties in hiding.

The particular concern is that North Korean regime has significantly tightened both control of the border and punishment for those caught crossing during the 100-day mourning period. Reportage on this remains a little sketchy. Dong-a claims that the regime has issued an edict that it will execute three generations of families caught crossing the border. This would seem over-the-top, but this is North Korea; it is well-known that the regime has used collective punishment and that whole families have been interred in the prison camps for the crimes of one member.

The news about killing three generations of families seems to originate from a December 23 Radio Free Asia (RFA) report which tells the story about a family from the city of Hyesan, Yanggang province. The family got caught by the border patrol attempting to cross the Yalu river on the very day North Korea announced the death of Kim Jong Il. One source, citing a local State Security official, said the family had become a high priority case that was reported all the way to an infuriated Kim Jong Un. Kim III personally ordered that border crossers be treated as “traitors” and that three generations of their families be executed. RFA said the captured family had 4 members, parents and two daughters who were under the age of 10. The source reports said that the parents and brothers of the captured family were arrested in the morning of the 21st and transferred to a prison camp.

Goodfriends #439 (released in late January and also not currently posted) tells the story in a somewhat different way, saying “the Central Party has released an order through each provincial party that, “The mourning period for the death of Kim Jong Il is set for 100 days. During this period, anyone trying to cross the river into China or using a cellphone will be treated as a war criminal.” It makes no mention of the “execute three generations” order, but being identified as a “war criminal” can hardly be comforting.

The Chinese government has long been wary about the existence of networks of NGOs operating in the Northeast and has periodically cracked down on them. But a follow-up story by Dong-a noted that the concerns may also be domestic. As my colleague Susan Shirk has pointed out in an excellent volume on the Chinese media, the authorities have a harder time exercising control than is often thought.

Follow these interesting threads. According to Dong-a, its initial story was quoted in The Global Times, an English-language newspaper published by China`s People`s Daily. Interestingly, The Global Times is hardly considered a Western sop; to the contrary, it is known for its nationalist edge. Western media to which Chinese have access also carried the story, including the claim that if the defectors are repatriated, “Pyongyang will kill three generations of their families.”

When the story hit the Chinese microblogging community, the response was not exactly in line with Beijing’s policy. (“Isn’t killing three generations of a refugee’s family too cruel?”; “Can’t North Korea have humanity?”; “Under the current human rights situation in North Korea, repatriating the refugees is the same as murdering them.”) This on top of the little episode in which Weibo reported on Kim Jong Un’s assassination in Beijing.

The government’s nervousness was confirmed to me personally. A story in the Chinese press, in which I was to be quoted, was suddenly pulled as a result of warnings that the press should be “careful” about all North Korean coverage.

Such stories are difficult to confirm precisely because the Chinese are mute on them; to our knowledge, the South Korean NGO in question has also not stepped forward. But it doesn’t even have to be true in every detail for the US to restate principle. The Chinese should not be repatriating refugees, and particularly not into the North Korean gulag.

Suzanne Scholte's North Korea Freedom Coalition is on the case; following is her "urgent action" notice, complete with a sample letter and addresses.

Dear Friends:

Please take a few minutes of your time to help save the lives of North Korean refugees who have been arrested in China this past month by writing a letter, sending a fax and emailing the Chinese consulates and embassies appealing for the refugees to be allowed to go to South Korea.  Two considerations on the urgency of this matter are that in the groups that were recently arrested are refugees who have family members in South Korea: a 16-year-old boy whose older brother is in South Korea and a 19-year-old girl whose parents are in Seoul.  In fact, the parents of the young girl are so desperate that they have appealed to be allowed to send poison to their daughter so that she can commit suicide in China rather than face repatriation to North Korea.

Secondly, with Kim Jong Un's focus on consolidating power, the situation for repatriated refugees, already horrible, is getting even worse.  In January, North Korea issued instructions that the entire family including all relatives should be executed if a family member defected during the 100 day mourning period after Kim Jong-il's death.  Many of you know that we hosted a defector here in the USA in September to testify in the U.S. Congress: Mrs. Kim Hye Sook, who spent 28 years in a political prison camp.  Her crime?  Her grandfather fled to South Korea in the early 1970s, so her entire family was sent to a political prison camp.  She was 13 years old at the time.

South Korea has already requested that China not repatriate these refugees to North Korea, where they will face certain torture and likely execution because they fled during the mourning period.

Below you will see a sample letter and the addresses, the fax numbers and emails for the People's Republic of China's embassy and consulates in the USA plus the link for those of you in other countries to find the PRC embassy in your nation.  We ask that you not just email or fax but also mail a letter to the embassies and consulates.

Let's flood them with appeals!

Acta Non Verba,

Suzanne Scholte

Chairman, North Korea Freedom Coalition

Here is a sample letter you can send with optional paragraphs in parenthesis--feel free to use as is or edit in your own words using some of the points in the letter below


His Excellency Hu Jintao President, People’s Republic of China c/o Consulate of the People’s Republic of China

(see addresses below)

Dear Mr. President:

Please do not send the North Korean refugees recently arrested in China back to North Korea where they face certain torture and even execution.  We urge you to accept the appeal by the South Korean government to allow them to travel to South Korea for resettlement.

(We understand and respect China’s concerns about refugees illegally entering China as they flee starvation and deprivation in North Korea.   However, as a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, China is obligated not to force these refugees back to North Korea where they face certain persecution.  Furthermore, unlike any refugees in the world today, the North Korean refugees have a place to go for immediate resettlement as they are citizens of South Korea, under Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic of Korea Constitution.   In addition to South Korea, many countries have willingly accepted North Koreans for resettlement, so they need not be a burden on China.)

(As you know, the policy of forced repatriation of North Korean refugees has created an environment of violent activity in China where North Korean agents roam freely assassinating humanitarian workers trying to help the refugees, while the majority of North Korean female refugees end up being subjected to human trafficking.  Instead, China should allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to assist China in addressing this refugee problem by simply allowing them to fulfill their mission, so this violent activity could end.  As your Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai recently stated, “The Chinese government has the responsibility to protect people’s safety and property, and to curb violent activities.  That is the most important human right for the people.”

(Ending this policy would not only have a very positive benefit for China, but would also increase the potential for reform to come to North Korea, which is also in China's best interest.  The ascendency of Kim Jong Un to power provides China with a tremendous opportunity to encourage reform there.  The North Korean refugees, who risk their lives to flee to China, do not want to leave North Korea, but they feel they have no choice because of the conditions in their homeland.  If China were to end its forced repatriation policy and work instead with the international community to resolve this problem, it would send a strong signal to the Kim regime of their need to open to reform, which China has been encouraging for decades.)

Please save the lives of the refugees by allowing them to safely be resettled in South Korea.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.




Chinese Embassy (Washington, DC) 3505 International Place, N.W. Washington, DC 20008 E-mail: [email protected] E-mail:[email protected] Fax: 1-202-495-2138

Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China in San Francisco 1450 Laguna Street San Francisco, CA 94115 E-mail: [email protected] Fax: 1-415-563-0494

Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China in Houston 3417 Montrose Boulevard Houston, TX 77006 Fax: 1-713-521-3064

Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China in New York 520 12th Avenue New York, NY 10036 Fax: 1-212-564-9389

Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China in Chicago 100 West Erie St. Chicago, IL 60610 Fax: 1-312-803-0105

Consulate-General of the People's Republic of China in Los Angeles 443 Shatto Place Los Angeles, CA 90020 Fax: 1-213-807-8091 E-mail: [email protected]


For citizens of other countries, please see the link below to find the embassy and consulate in your country:

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