China’s North Korean Refugee Problem

By | March 29, 2012 | No Comments

The following piece on China and North Korean refugees comes to us from Sokeel Park, Research and Policy Analyst for LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), a US-based NGO that provides emergency assistance to North Korean refugees. The essay was recently featured on “Speaking Freely” at Asia Times Online, an open forum for guest writers to contribute their opinions on pressing issues in Asia. In an effort to leave no reader behind, Park has asked that we cross-post his essay here on, and we have gladly obliged. – Charles Kraus, Managing Editor

China’s North Korean Refugee Problem

by Sokeel Park

Western media attention on North Korea has recently been dominated by the US-DPRK “Leap Day Deal” of food aid for nuclear concessions, and by Pyongyang’s subsequent announcement of a “satellite” launch to mark the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth. However, as usual, beneath all the high-politics and focus on security concerns, there is quite a different story involving the North Korean people.Away from the back and forth in US-DPRK posturing on security matters, South Korea has been battling with the Chinese government over their forced repatriations of North Korean refugees.

China is hemorrhaging soft-power on this issue, alienating the South Korean people and government and damaging their reputation before the international community. In the long-run this is a strategic mistake.Every year thousands of North Koreans risk their lives to escape their country. Even in China they live in fear, because the Chinese government’s official policy is to forcibly send back North Koreans that have left the country without state permission. The North Korean regime takes the issue of defection very seriously and countless refugee testimonies confirm that repatriated refugees are at risk of imprisonment, forced labor, torture and even execution.

It seems that many North Koreans do not even see hope for improvements under the new Kim Jong-un leadership. Refugees that I spoke with both before and after Kim Jong-il’s death thought that Kim Jong-un would rule in the same mold as his father, and that life in North Korea might even get more difficult as the leadership moves to impose more restrictions during the transitional period. Recent reports coming out of the country sadly confirm that this is the case, with market activities in particular being curtailed since Kim Jong-il’s death.

To make matters worse, since the beginning of 2012 the Chinese government has been cooperating with the new North Korean leadership to crack down on people fleeing from North Korea. In February and March these crackdowns came under the spotlight after the Chinese authorities arrested dozens of refugees at different locations in Northeast China. Relatives of the refugees, activists and South Korean diplomats first tried to secure their release through quiet diplomacy while purposefully keeping the issue out of the media, but when it became apparent that the Chinese authorities would not show any flexibility and repatriation was imminent, the issue was publicized in a last ditch effort to save the refugees.

The public campaign, using the slogan “Save My Friend” and utilizing social media as well as South Korean celebrity advocates, gained unprecedented attention. The South Korean government was pushed to make their strongest ever public statements on the issue and President Lee and Foreign Minister Kim both brought up the issue in their discussions with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang in Seoul. In addition over 175,000 people from around the world added their voice to an online petition, and the U.S. Government, U.S. Congressmen, the UNHCR, and the UN Secretary-General all expressed concern for the refugees and called on China to comply with their responsibilities under international law.


“Save My Friend” (Image:

Despite this, the Chinese authorities forcibly repatriated all of the North Korean refugees.

The Chinese government claims that they deal with people fleeing North Korea “in accordance with domestic and international laws, and humanitarian principles”. But by cracking down on refugees and sending them back to face harsh punishments in North Korea, it is clear to any of the growing number of people watching this issue that the Chinese government is acting only in accordance with the wishes of Pyongyang. By choosing to promote its political relationship with the North Korean regime over the human rights of the North Korean people and the expressed wishes of other governments in the region, the Chinese government is damaging its reputation in the eyes of South Korea, the U.S. and the rest of the international community.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry deflects criticism on the North Korean refugee issue

Even domestically, young Chinese people are increasingly recognizing North Korea as China’s most embarrassing ally. The official respect paid to Kim Jong-il when he died last December – “A Friend’s Departure” being the headline in the China Daily – seemed ridiculous to them. There were even calls on the Chinese social networking site Sina Weibo for the Chinese government to consider the North Korean refugees’ human rights and not repatriate them. My North Korean refugee contacts are encouraged by this and hope that increasing numbers of Chinese people will become aware of and feel sympathy for the plight of North Korean refugees.

Chinese officials should recognize that rounding up and forcibly repatriating refugees to North Korea, in clear contravention of international refugee law that the Chinese government has itself signed up to, is counterproductive to any goal of improving China’s international image.

The treatment of North Korean refugees, along with China’s attitude in the South China Sea disputes, can be seen as test cases for the Chinese government’s sincere commitment to their ‘peaceful rise’. If the Chinese government continues to disregard international law and the rights of neighbouring countries’ citizens as well as public opinion in the region, and instead pursues narrow strategic interests in alignment with the North Korean leadership, their neighbors will increasingly view them as a belligerent threat instead of a trustworthy cooperative partner. The more governments and people in the region question the Chinese government’s desire to play by the rules and act as a responsible stakeholder, the more they will seek closer ties with the U.S. In the end, this will undermine China’s own goal of reducing American influence in Asia.

Beijing is even reported to be interested in pursuing an FTA with South Korea. They should therefore take note of the amount of beef that the South Korean public had during their government’s FTA negotiations with the U.S. If China wants to go where the EU and U.S. have already gone and benefit from an enhanced economic relationship with South Korea, then at some point they are going to have to think carefully about addressing the South Korean public’s increasing distrust of China.

The Chinese government fears that if they changed their policy towards North Korean defectors, it would be a slap in the face for the North Korean regime. There is a face-saving way around this: instead of changing their official policy, all they need to do is to not actively implement it by not instructing local police forces and security agencies to crack down on refugees. The Chinese authorities can quietly turn a blind eye to refugees that leave North Korea and travel through China on their way to South Korea, as they have done in the past. This would protect their relationship with South Korea and prevent their international reputation from being tarnished. Even the Chinese government’s fears that more lax security would encourage a destabilising flood of refugees are no longer valid since the North Korean regime has significantly tightened border security on their side since the summer of 2011.

If the North Korean leadership demands China’s cooperation in cracking down on refugees, the Chinese government should put more weight on their international reputation and make Pyongyang realize who holds the cards. They should ask Pyongyang what they would prefer out of food aid, energy assistance, investment and infrastructure development, diplomatic cover, and complicity in human rights abuses through the repatriation of refugees. The North Korean regime will soon realize where their priorities lie.

China’s long-term interests are better served by building trust and better relationships with the rest of the international community by demonstrating its commitment to developing as a responsible global power that treats the people of its neighbors with dignity. Ceasing their crackdowns on North Korean refugees is not just the right thing to do, it is also in China’s national interest.

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  1. For the most part, China’s Northeast is still the nation’s rustbelt. Due to increased privitisation, tons of State-owned Enterprises have been going through all sorts of realignments and downsizing, and unemployment has been a problem for the longest time. The presence of North Korean refugees doesn’t help. Things have been improving dramatically in the last 5 years, but it’s still not an area where you can say, “Sure, we have tons of jobs available! We can sure use some help from North Koreans (a la mansudae project, or otherwise)!” China has an issue with certain laws not being enforced equally, do you really want to encourage China to do more of that?

    South Korea is definately not in any position to criticize China for its treatment of refugees. Sure, in South Korea, some North Koreans get lucky enough to get jobs working for the government, pumping propaganda back up north, some get lucky enough to be voted in as legislatures, but for the most part, they face a lot of discrimination and exploitation amongst their own brethren. For them to criticize China’s treatment of refugees, is 五十步笑百步/오십보백보. South Korea also knows it doesn’t have the capacity to take on the number of refugees that are estimated to have escaped the north (in China, and Southeast Asia), so it wants the world to share some of that burden. Nice PR strategy for the election season, NFP.

  2. Without real commitment from the South Korean government and the South Korean society at large, the talbukja will never be truly resolved. Why go out of your way to put China on public trial only to let in a few talkbukjas here and there, why not letting in all talbukjas hiding in China? It makes one think the whole thing is just a charade, a ploy by the 2MB administration and the Saenuri Party to placate their conservative, anti-North Korea base before the upcoming election.

    The ball is in South Korea’s court.

  3. Funny thing, Chinese media has been (relatively speaking) going to town on Obama for playing domestic politics at the 38th parallel when, concurrently, there has been virtually no criticism of the conservative Saenuri party. Why is that?

  4. Adam,

    Because the Chinese typically don’t explicitly criticize South Korea?

  5. Author’s response:

    Thank you for your comments. You raise an important point that needs to be addressed properly, so apologies if this is a bit lengthy.

    Yes, North Korean refugees face many challenges in their resettlement in South Korea, and this pains me as well. Indeed, many activists that advocate for North Korean refugees are working on addressing these problems in South Korean society as well. They stem from the background and prior experiences of the refugees as well as from discrimination and prejudice that they face in South Korean society. But is saying “South Korea is in no position to criticize China for its treatment of refugees” not pushing it too far?

    First of all lets not conflate government and society in these countries. As for the South Korean govt’s treatment of NK refugees:
    After making it to SK, NK refugees undergo an investigation (to make sure they are NK refugees and not Korean-Chinese, and to make sure they are not spies), then undergo resettlement training at Hanawon, and are then allowed to live in SK society as ROK citizens. They are given financial assistance to aid their resettlement (it may even be the most generous resettlement allowance given to refugees / asylum seekers anywhere in the world), scholarships, and employers are incentivized to hire them. The system is by no means perfect and NK refugees (including friends of mine) have had valid complaints about their treatment, but in my view the SK govt is still learning how to deal with NK refugees and the system is steadily improving over the years.

    As detailed in the above article, the Chinese government’s treatment of NK refugees is vastly different.

    The SK govt first tried to engage the Chinese authorities to solve the problem through quiet diplomacy, as is standard practice. The Chinese government refused to cooperate at all. The SK govt asked for basic information on the status of the refugees 18 times (yes 18 times), and the Chinese govt had no response every single time. After the situation became public, and in the face of complete non-cooperation from the Chinese govt side, the SK govt was well within their rights to make the public statements that they did, for instance President Lee: “As long as the defectors are not criminals, it would be right for China to deal with them according to international norms. In that regard, Seoul will cooperate with Beijing.”

    There may be around 30K NK refugees currently in China. It is of course true that if they all suddenly had a way to somehow get to SK at the same time, this would overwhelm the current capacity to process them, because the SK system deals with between 2,500 to 3,000 NK refugees per year (they are working to increase capacity but it doesn’t happen over night). Any country would have problems in those circumstances. But this is a very unrealistic hypothetical situation. The reality is that the SK govt consistently cooperates with other countries in Asia to get NK refugees to SK. This is quite successful with Mongolia and certain countries in SE Asia. Is there any evidence that the SK govt has ever refused to cooperate with the Chinese govt on getting NK refugees from China to SK? All the evidence is that the Chinese govt has *largely* refused to cooperate with the SK govt on this issue (they did reportedly recently agree to let 11 NK refugees currently in SK diplomatic missions in China to leave the country, but note that they had been waiting for this breakthrough for years). Do you not think it too much of a stretch to say that the problem is on the SK side here?

    As for criticism of the Chinese government from SK civil society, it is true that SK society also has its problems with NK refugees, and there is prejudice and discrimination (by the way, they face less exploitation in SK than in China partly because they do not have to work as “illegal immigrants” in SK and therefore are not at as much risk of exploitation). SK society has to overcome a lot of these problems, and there have to be shifts in perception to do this. Many NGOs in SK are working on these problems and are trying to help NK refugees in their resettlement. Of course more must be done. But SK NGOs and individuals that care about this issue are also well within their rights to criticize the Chinese government’s crackdowns and forced repatriations of NK refugees. One of the recent protest organizers was a teacher at Yeomyung School – a school for NK refugees. Do you really think she is not in any position to criticize China for their treatment of NK refugees?

  6. When you said “The SK govt asked for basic information on the status of the refugees 18 times (yes 18 times), and the Chinese govt had no response every single time”, what “refugees” are you referring to? Specific refugees, such as those high-profile families of former ROK army soldiers who have been held in North Korea? Or all talbukjas hiding in China, anywhere between 30,000 to 300,000? I’d be very surprised if it was the latter, since (1) I don’t believe the South Korean government had the heart to care to know the status of all of them and (2) the Chinese government would have no way of knowing the status of each everyone of them.

    I don’t think it is fair to say the Chinese government has completely refused to cooperated with the South Korean government so far. Since the early 2000’s, scores of talbukjas have hit embassies and consulates in China. Are you saying China repatriated all but a few of these folks to North Korea?

    What I believe the South Korean government should be doing short term is working with China under the table to (1) pursuade China to continues the old approach of turning a blind eye for the most part to talbukjas so less and less of them are caught in China and (2) if anyone is caught he or she will be turned over to the South Korean government secretly and discreetly (however, this must NOT be advertised, otherwise being caught becomes a fast lane to South Korea, as is the case in Mongolia and Thailand, I believe) and (3) to placate the North Koreans, both South Korea and China reach an agreement that a few might need to be repatriated. This way the flow continues. Publicly putting China under pressure will only make things worse. I think China turned over those 11 to the South Koreans as a good-will gesture, not as some sort of a response to the prior pressure from the South Koreans.

    In the long run, if the South Koreans truly care about the talbukjas they have to at least try to get all of these people to South Korea, right? Are they even trying? Anything short of that will make people question the sincerity of the South Korean government and society.

  7. @Juchechosunmanse
    In saying “The SK govt asked for basic information on the status of the refugees 18 times (yes 18 times), and the Chinese govt had no response every single time” I was following on from the article and referring to the recent case of the 31 known refugees (precise number unknown, could be more) who were detained in the recent crackdowns, triggering the recent protests and attention from the SK govt. The SK govt (and the UNHCR and the USG to a lesser degree) tried to engage the Chinese govt on this case but the Chinese govt refused to provide even the most basic information (numbers, locations etc) on the refugees to the SK govt despite these repeated requests. The Chinese authorities failed to show any cooperation in both the quiet diplomacy phase–quiet diplomacy was tried at first while the issue was purposefully kept out of the media, DongA’s Joo Seong-ha has written on this (in Korean)–and after the issue was made public.

    You may have then misunderstood what followed. I did not mean “the Chinese government has completely refused to cooperated with the South Korean government so far” on this issue entirely (as you seem to have understood), again I was referring to their complete lack of cooperation with the SK govt over the recent case of 31 detained refugees. When speaking about the issue in general I specifically said “All the evidence is that the Chinese govt has *largely* refused to cooperate with the SK govt on this issue.” And then highlighted a recent case of (limited) cooperation to allow NK refugees holed up in SK diplomatic missions to be granted exit visas to leave China (after reportedly being stuck in limbo for up to 3 years – cooperation here is quite different to cooperation on other NK refugee issues like the detained 31, really the Chinese govt was throwing a very old bone to SK here).

    I agree with you that the ideal (realistic) situation is the use of quiet diplomacy and the Chinese authorities turning a blind-eye to NK refugees as they make their way to SK via third countries. I believe if you read carefully you will see that this is the point of the article. But as you said, this is “the old approach” and the fact is that for quite a while now the Chinese authorities have failed to show this kind of pragmatic stance, they have increasingly done away with “benign neglect” and have stepped up their crackdowns on NK refugees, as requested by Pyongyang. Even more so since the beginning of this year, in cooperation with the new NK leadership. The Chinese authorities have also shown an inflexible approach when SK diplomats have engaged them on this subject using quiet diplomacy. So what are we to do? Sit back while the Chinese govt cracks down more and more on refugees and refuses to engage in quiet diplomacy when situations arise, in the hopes that they will just eventually change their position by themselves? That’s a pretty weak strategy. OR should we proactively try to affect their political calculus? If the Chinese govt sees more costs (including international reputation costs) associated with their crackdowns and failure to cooperate with quiet diplomacy, it will disincentivise future crackdowns and empower the SK diplomats during future quiet diplomacy.

    The SK govt and civil society can always do more, but the suggestion that the barrier to cooperation on this issue is on the SK side is surely untenable. The fundamental intransigence is clearly on the Chinese govt’s side.

  8. SP,

    What made those 31 talbukjas different from all the other North Korean talbukjas over the years? Is there any reason why the South Korean government was so keen on getting these 31 people, or is there any reason why the Chinese government was so keen on repatriating them? If the reason was simply being the Chinese government was going to repatriate them, does that mean the Chinese government has not repatriated any in the last several years and this was a major repatriation event?

    South Korea needs to understand the situation China finds itself in. China can’t just completely ignore requests and demands from North Korea to crack down on talbukjas, to do so will provoke North Korea and result in further dwingling their already thinning leverage and influence on North Korea. Can South Korea say no to the US? Exactly. China has to give North Korea something. That’s why I previously proposed that China and South Korea jointly provide aid (rice and fertilizer) to North Korea to buy silence from North Korea when China and South Korea work together to send all talbukjas to South Korea. North Korea needs to do its part and prevents more and more talbukjas from crossing into China.

    Again I don’t think the Chinese government will budge under pressure (or “international reputation costs” as you mentioned). After all they have not budged under pressure on a whole slew of things such as Tibet, human rights in general, what sets the talbukja issue from other gripes? If anything it could harden their response. Making them lose face is no good. That’s why I think quiet diplomacy will work much better.

  9. But you need a better understanding that North Koreans, who fled their country, are also human beings.

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