Those Who Flee: North Korean Refugees
As of 2006, tens of thousands of North Koreans had fled to China for food, survival, opportunity, and for life.26 Some even attempt to cross the border in search of food items to use or sell in North Korea. If caught attempting to leave North Korea, North Koreans are “shot-on-site,” arrested and executed, or indefinitely imprisoned. If caught in China, North Koreans are deported by China to North Korea, and face the same consequences of death or indefinite imprisonment.
In June of 2008, looming food deficits and increased flight from North Korea resulted in a “shoot on sight” order by Kim Jong Il, authorizing the immediate execution of desperate North Koreans found moving towards China.27 On February 20, 2008, the public execution of 15 North Koreans on charges of trafficking and movement demonstrated the state’s continued commitment to restrict the movement of the North Korean people with the ultimate punishment of death for the basic exercise of this human right.28
Reaching safe haven for North Koreans is not only difficult, but often fatal. Those who flee predominantly find safe haven as refugees in Cambodia, and eventually in South Korea or in the United States. However, only 16,500 North Korean refugees have successfully and safely escaped the DPRK because Chinese and North Korean law enforcement intensely patrol the borderlands north of North Korea and Chinese guards and Chinese guards that are posted outside of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and outside of cooperating Embassies in Beijing, China. Additionally, many North Korean refugees flee without their families, many of whom remain in North Korea and may face punishment for the flight of their family member.
With so few North Koreans able to safely leave North Korea, fewer are safe enough to advocate for the North Korean people without risking their security and the security of their family who remain in North Korea. In turn, the international community must recognize and prioritize the rights of both North Korean refugees and of North Koreans living in the DPRK to stop the North Korean human rights crisis.
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. The frontierland north of the North Korea – China border is constantly patrolled by Chinese and North Korean law enforcement who both seek to deport North Koreans. Those who are deported to North Korea, either by Chinese or North Korean law enforcement, face imprisonment in internment camps or death.
Under international law — Article 33 and 35 of the United Nations Refugee Convention and Article 3 of the United Nations Convention on Torture (CAT), two international treaties to which China is party –, China is obligated to grant safe haven to North Korean refugees who face a reasonable fear of political persecution and to protect individuals who will face torture upon deportation. Additionally, under the UN-China Agreement of 1995, China is required to allow the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) access to the North Korea – China border. Despite China’s international obligations under the Torture Convention, the Refugee Convention, and the UN-China Agreement of 1995, Chinese law enforcement continue to send North Koreans back to North Korea.
China justifies its deportation of North Koreans by classifying North Koreans as economic migrants, rather than as refugees. However, under the Refugee Convention, a refugee as a person who:
“[O]wing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country.”29
Given the execution or indefinite imprisonment of deported North Koreans for “defection by flight” – notwithstanding the denial of food and of other basic human rights -, it is commonly respected and accepted that North Koreans who flee their homeland are well within the definition of refugee status and deserve international protections, support, and safe haven. For more information on China and North Korea’s obligations under international law, please visit the international law section of NKN.
In addition, North Koreans law enforcement search for North Korea defectors – those who have left North Korea without permission – to bring them back to North Korea. The heavy presence of law enforcement in the North Korea – China borderlands, in addition to sex and labor traffickers, creates both terror and skepticism among the estimated 100,000 North Korean refugees who live as fugitives in China who have difficulty finding genuine humanitarian aid and honest resources in this intensely dangerous region.
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News reports and video footage have confirmed that North Koreans are executed in public for defection against the government, and particularly for attempts to flee North Korea. Almost all North Korean defectors -adults and children alike-, testify that they witnessed multiple public executions in North Korea. In the late 1990s, North Korean refugee children drew paintings of public executions by memory. These drawings are available in NKN’s Film and Photo section, under Drawings by North Korean Refugee Children. The systematic public execution of North Koreans was later confirmed in 2005 when a Japanese independent news agency (Japan Independent News Net Co., Ltd.) released a video film of a public execution that was captured by a North Korean defector. The sequence of the public execution precisely aligned with the drawings of the North Korean refugees. In 2008, international news sources continued to reveal both public execution and “shoot-on-site” policies advanced by Kim Jong Il, in the North Korean regime’s efforts to deter flight to China and maintain terror and control over its population.
. Due to heightened law enforcement presence in the North Korea – China borderlands, and the terror of deportation to North Korea, North Koreans have no voice or rights in China. Women who flee North Korea are especially victimized and exploited upon flight. North Korean women are often taken, coerced, or abducted into China’s illegal sex trafficking industry where they are sold and re-sold to Chinese men, most frequently as “wives” in forced marriages. Once sold into sex-slavery and forced marriage to Chinese men, North Korean women often face poverty, abuse, forced labor, exploitation, and rape.
In some parts of China, the male to female ratio is as high as 14:1, meaning that there is great demand for “marriageable” and “fertile” women in China. The demand for “marriageable” women and the willingness of Chinese men to pay substantial sums of money for North Korean women, has created a trafficking market that sells North Korean women to Chinese men for the purposes of “forced marriage.”30 While, traffickers reap the profits of selling human lives, such sex trafficking and slavery take North Korean women to isolated and impoverished parts of China’s vast, rural provinces. Such rural placement worsens prospects for escape and further silences the voice and rights of North Korean sex trafficking survivors in China. Women who flee from their forced marriages are commonly re-captured and re-sold.
Like sex-slavery survivors in many other parts of the world, North Korean sex trafficking survivors are exploited, abused, forced to work, and raped for both their bodies and their reproductive capabilities.
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