Stateless: An Introduction to the North Korean Refugee Issue

By | January 31, 2012 | No Comments

As today’s news from the Myanmar-Yuannan border indicates, the notion of thousands of refugees moving over Chinese borders and into the PRC is not a phenomenon which is completely unique to the DPRK-China frontier.  However, as today’s essay connotes, the issues surrounding North Korea’s refugee population are vitally important, playing a significant role in the discourse about Chinese and Korean human rights, the Sino-North Korean relationship, and how China treats its own growing “stateless” population. And the stories of the refugees, especially those who make it out, are worthy of our thought and attention, even in heartbreaking places like Rochester, New York.  Author Mary Soo Anderson,’s Analyst for Refugee Issues based in Seoul, breaks down several of the key issues in the first of a series of essays and interviews.   — Editor

A Brief Introduction to the North Korean Refugee Issue

by Mary Soo Anderson

On January 27, 2012, about 150 human rights activists and North Korean defectors held a rally in central Seoul to protest against Beijing’s policy of forced repatriation of North Koreans in China. Although police forces peacefully disbanded the crowd not long after it approached the Chinese Embassy, the vocal protestors succeeded in bringing attention to China’s treatment of North Korean defectors.

Why North Koreans Flee |  To briefly highlight the human rights situation in North Korea: the North Korean government subjects citizens to severe restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, information, and movement (both within and beyond the nation’s borders). In the 100 day mourning period that is currently under way, even cell phone usage has been reportedly banned. The Rodong Sinmun (which attacked the aforementioned cell phone story as false) has recently called for an intensified struggle against what it called the “cultural poison” of capitalist culture. Violation of communications restrictions or perceived caving in to “cultural poison” can include tuning into non-state radio or television broadcasts, or something as simple as singing a South Korean melody, and can result in a sentence at a forced labor camp, where the offender must carry out difficult physical labor while enduring severe mistreatment and torture.

Severe food shortages continue to grip the DPRK. The World Food Program has called the present circumstances the worst famine in a decade. A combination of failed economic policies, adverse weather conditions and a lack of international food aid has resulted in widespread suffering, leaving one in every three children chronically malnourished and a quarter of all pregnant women and breastfeeding women also malnourished.

With these dire conditions, we can easily understand why each year more and more North Koreans decide to risk their lives to leave their homeland and cross the northern border into China. But what fate awaits them beyond the Tumen River?

Further Hardships in China |  Although life in China is much improved in terms of access to food and money compared to life in the DPRK, North Koreans living in the PRC face a precarious situation. A bilateral agreement between China and North Korea compels Chinese police to arrest and forcibly send North Korean defectors back to North Korea, where they face certain hardships at the hands of the authorities and sentencing to labor camps. Due to the danger of a prolonged stay in China, many North Korean defectors attempt to furtively travel to safer intermediary countries (such as Mongolia or Thailand) before reaching their final destination in South Korea, the United States, or Europe.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of North Korean defectors in China ranges from 30,000 to 50,000 (some press reports estimate as high as 300,000), the majority of whom are women. Due to the shortage of women in poor, rural areas of northeastern China, most of these women are trafficked and then sold to Chinese men as wives in this area. Although some women enjoy relatively happy and safe lives through these marriages, many more suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands. The following testimony by a North Korean woman who defected in 2005, quoted in a 2011 report by Seoul-based NGO Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, describes an oft-heard situation:

“…Some Chinese man bought me for 5,000 yuan [about 800 USD]. He was a disabled person…My life was miserable in China. It was so hard to live with someone I didn’t like. At first, I told him I didn’t want to sleep with him and he hit me a lot. I wanted to kill myself so I overdosed on sleeping pills, but I survived because the police found me.”

Children born from these marriages are often deemed “stateless.” Although the father’s Chinese citizenship is enough to grant citizenship to the child, without documentation from the mother (virtually impossible to obtain), the child often cannot register under China’s household registration system, known as hukou. Without a hukou, the child does not have access to education or medical care. The estimated number of these children varies from a few thousand to several tens of thousands. Although some regions of China will grant a hukou without the mother’s documentation for a fee, only about a third of these children have been so fortunate.  While Chinese society has shown some sympathy for its own migrant workers experiencing hukou difficulties, the illegal status of North Korean refugees in China and the Communist Party’s own restrictions on public discourse in the PRC means that there is little to no debate about the hukou problems faced by children of North Korean mothers in China.

Understanding China’s Policy toward North Korean Defectors |  While the previously mentioned agreement between China and North Korea accounts for the arrest and repatriation of undocumented North Koreans within China’s borders, the repatriation of North Koreans also violates China’s obligations under international refugee law. According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, to which China is party, “no Contracting States shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

China refuses to recognize North Korean defectors as refugees, instead identifying them as economic migrants. As China does not allow UNHCR to contact North Korean defectors, it is nearly impossible to determine how many North Koreans are seeking asylum in China out of fear of persecution in North Korea.  Due to the harsh punishment North Koreans face upon their return to North Korea, however, many North Korean defectors fit into the category of refugee sur place. UNHCR defines refugees sur place as persons who are not refugees when they leave their country but become refugees at a later date because of a valid fear of persecution upon return. North Korean law stipulates that leaving the country without permission is a criminal offense, and countless testimonies confirm that repatriated North Koreans will face arrest, torture and in some cases death upon their return.

China’s treatment of North Korean defectors does not comply with its practices towards other refugee. In fact, China has worked with UNHCR to help refugees from other countries integrate into Chinese society or find refuge elsewhere. The inconsistent stance towards North Korean defectors appears to be born from both security and economic rationales. If China was to grant refugee status to North Koreans, this could precipitate a mass exodus of North Koreans into China and possibly aid in the collapse of the North Korean regime. A massive influx of poor immigrants to the country could also destabilize the fragile northeastern economy.

Given China’s overall human rights record, the likelihood that the government will soon alter its policies toward North Korean defectors is slim. Several international bodies, including UNHCR and other UN governing bodies, view China’s forced repatriation of North Korean defectors as a violation of international refugee law. The 150 activists and North Korean defectors who rallied in Seoul last month demonstrate the increasing awareness and disapproval of China’s actions. Although the opposition has grown more vocal, China remains unmoved.

Musan, North Hamgyong province; photo by Adam Cathcart; click image for recent news from the city by DailyNK

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  1. The Talbukjas deserve a break. Anderson’s piece did a nice job explaining the situation and cause of the Taljukja issue as well as China’s dilemma. However, she offers no solutions, neither do those SK human rights activists who have been lambasting China.

    China’s hands are tied. For those reasons that Anderson mentioned in her piece, China can’t simply make a sweeping change to grant Talbukjas the refugee status, to do so it’d be detrimental to China’s interests. Like in America’s immigration debate, I favor a solution that would grant amesty to those that are already in China and seure the border to prevent more potential Talbukjas from entering the country. For those that are in China already, a deal needs to be reached among the three parties involved, the two Koreas and China. The South Korean government should pay for the expenses to round up, register and transport all Talbukjas who wish to go to South Korea (I assume 99% of them do), North Korea would turn a blind eye to it and in exchange China and South Korea would promise more aid (rice and fertilizer especially) to North Korea. Meanwhile China and North Korea should beef up the border security to prevent more North Koreans from entering China.

    Of course this solution is not without problems. First and foremost, is South Korea willing to accept 30,000 to 300,000 more Talbukjas into their country all of sudden? If not, then it just highlights the hypocritical nature of the SK government and some SK human rights organizations on the Talbukja issue. Many South Koreans talk the talk and do not appear to be ready to walk the walk. Secondly, to grant such a sweeping amesty to Talbukjas in China might encourage potential Talbukjas to venture into China. Third, what can China and North Korea do to beef up border security? The Sino-NK border is long and porous.

    Ultimately the Talbukja issue must be worked out between the two Koreas. If South Korea truly cares about these people (which I highly doubt), it needs to show the brotherly love it allegedly has and be more acceptive. South Korea can simply buy these Talbukjas out of China by reimbursing the North Korean government if it wants to. North Korea on the other hand should improve its economy (perhaps by embarking on the market economic reform seen in China and Vietnam) to prevent more people from wanting to flee the country.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Juche, lots of good and pragmatic points in your critique. For the benefit of other readers, talbukja (at least in my book) refers to “one who has fled to the North” (e.g., a North Korean who has gone over the river to China).

  3. Ms. Anderson, this is an excellent article explaining a tricky situation in very clear terms. Keep up the good work. I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  4. It saddens me that the North Korean government could care less for the people residing in the country. Food shortages; leaving malnourished children and expected mothers, in addition to having restrictions on cell phone usage and television broadcasts are mistreating citizen’s human rights. I completely understand why North Koreans want to escape to China so they can contain more freedom.

    China’s treatment of North Korean defectors is also disturbing to me but understanding because I know that if the government alters its policies there will be an overflow of North Koreans which will leave China in a huge financial deficit. At the same time, reading that an estimated number of a few thousand to several tens of thousands children don’t have an opportunity to receive an education nor medical care is a rude awakening. When reading that, it opened my eyes that I and everyone else in the United States should be grateful that they are receiving benefits that not all children are receiving in other countries.

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