North Korea remains one of the most secretive countries in the world. While the country is often mentioned in the media for its military capabilities and nuclear threats, the human rights issues and humanitarian challenges faced by the North Korean people receive less attention. The people of North Korea suffer serious human rights violations, including violations of the right to food security, freedom of religion, expression, association, movement; violations associated with the operation of political prison camps; gender-based violence against women and girls (including trafficking in persons); enforced disappearances by the government; and various violations associated with the maintenance of a strict socio-political class system called songbun. A United Nations Commission of Inquiry concluded in 2014 that the North Korean government is committing “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations,” which “in many instances…constitute crimes against humanity” (para 80, United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, 2014). For such reasons, many North Koreans have sought to escape, looking for a better life, economic opportunities, and freedom. Since the border between North and South Korea is heavily militarized, most escapees first cross the border into China. Then, they travel across China to, subsequently, resettle in a third country. Most escapees do not envision themselves permanently residing in China (Kook, 2015). Some escapees spend months or years in China, however, and they remain undocumented during this time. If discovered by the Chinese authorities, they are at risk of forcible repatriation. This essay explores the conditions that drive North Koreans to escape their country and the challenges and risks that they face once they escape.
In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry (COI) to investigate the human rights situation in North Korea. After a year-long investigation consisting of public hearings and extensive interviews with escapees and expert witnesses, the COI concluded that crimes against humanity were widespread and occurred systematically pursuant to state policy. These include violations of the right to food, discrimination, arbitrary detention, violations of the right to life, the right to freedom of expression, freedom of movement and freedom of religion, torture, and inhumane treatment in numerous prison camps (United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, 2014). A multi-year inquiry of human rights violations in North Korea’s detention facilities, conducted by the International Bar Association (IBA) and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), recently concluded in June 2022 that impunity for grave human rights violations continues to be an ongoing and widespread concern. Such reasons constitute some of the motives driving North Koreans to escape, although leaving the country without official authorization is prohibited by the North Korean Criminal Code (Article 221, Criminal Law of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Moreover, individuals have been motivated to flee because of persistent economic difficulties. Following the breakdown of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s and due to limited economic relations with non-communist countries, North Korea’s finances, infrastructure, and resources were insufficient to adequately provide for the population (Yoon & Babson, 2002). The limited resources in the country were concentrated on regime priorities, such as improving the country’s military capacities, developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and providing benefits for the political elite. Such a resource partition remains similar today or has even worsened under the leadership of Kim Jong-un. Furthermore, during the mid-to-late 1990s, North Korea witnessed a devastating famine that is estimated to have killed more than one million people (Noland, 2004). Many North Koreans still face food insecurity, and the humanitarian situation remains precarious. Each year, news outlets report stories and evidence of starving North Korean children suffering from malnutrition. The international community has provided humanitarian aid since the late 1990s to alleviate the situation, but chronic food shortages and insecurity persist (Haggard & Noland, 2005).
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the humanitarian situation inside North Korea has deteriorated even further. In early 2020, the North Korean government decided to completely close its borders with no exceptions, even for food aid, from foreign governments or international organizations, placing an even greater number of citizens under critical conditions (Bicker, 2021). Due to the pandemic, the number of North Koreans escaping to other countries has significantly decreased. Statistics show that from a peak of 2,914 North Koreans entering South Korea in 2009, only 63 were recorded last year. A drastic drop in escapee numbers occurred especially after Kim Jong-un came into power as he introduced tighter border control policies (Ministry of Unification, n.d.) While the number of North Koreans escaping the country sharply decreased since the beginning of the pandemic due to stricter border control policies such as the shoot-to-kill order (Sifton, 2020), these struggles and circumstances continue to spark North Koreans’ motivation to escape in search of a better future.
North Koreans cannot receive formal documentation during their stay in China due to the illegality of their escape and due to bilateral agreements between North Korea and China. Their undocumented status renders them powerless, unprotected, and at constant risk of being forcibly repatriated or arrested and often subjected to other forms of punishment. In 2004, it was estimated that as many as 300,000 North Korean escapees escaped to China (U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004). However, as mentioned before, due to tighter border control policies in North Korea and stricter laws in China, the number of North Korean escapees has decreased. Currently, 50,000 undocumented North Koreans are estimated to be living in China (White, 2021). The exact number remains unknown. Traveling across the country is dangerous for North Korean escapees. If they are found by Chinese officials, they are detained, punished, and then forcibly repatriated. Not only do the escapees fear arrest, but they are also subject to human trafficking and, consequently, suffer from depression and other post-traumatic disorders (Haggard & Noland, 2006). In 2021, it was estimated that the Chinese government was holding at least 1,170 North Koreans in detention. At least 450 of these are men who are illegally working in China, without documentation. They are subject to unfair labor treatment and constantly at risk of being detained by officials and repatriated to China (White, 2021).
North Korean women in China are exposed to abuse, forced prostitution, and human trafficking. Approximately 60% of North Korean women escapees fall victim to the multi-million (U.S.) dollar sexual slavery trade in some form (Cole, 2019). The position of women is already precarious in North Korea, where they are often exposed to sexual and gender-based violence by local officials both inside and outside of the country’s prison camps. Their condition does not improve once in China. Escapee women are often forced into illegal marriages by brokers who are involved in human trafficking. Many testimonies indicate that women are sold into the sex trade industry and then “resold” over and over. This illegal industry is estimated to be worth $105 million, which reflects the high demand for slaves inside China. The so-called “One Child Policy”, combined with the traditional preference for male newborns, gave rise to a shortage of marriage-age women in rural areas. This phenomenon fuels demand for the sexual slavery trade in China. Victims are sometimes as young as nine (Cole, 2019). Even after marriage, North Korean women are still at risk of deportation and forcible repatriation, as these marriages are not legally recognized by the Chinese government (Lee, 2009).
Children who are born from these marriages face the challenge of obtaining legal status in China. They remain stateless and are not legally protected in China or in North Korea. For this reason, North Korean women are often forced to undergo dangerous and unsafe abortions. Moreover, during these forced marriages, women suffer physical and emotional abuse from their Chinese husbands and, sometimes, their in-laws, with no possibility of redress for such abuse. After entering China, female North Korean escapees who are not sold as brides are often forced into illegal prostitution as the only source of income available to them. Testimonies highlight the terrible conditions that they face: working long hours, having minimal sleep, being frequently beaten, and only being allowed to leave their apartments once every six months with a minder (CNN, 2018). If found in China by authorities, North Korean escapees face forced deportation. Once repatriated to North Korea, they face incarceration, punishment, severe ill-treatment, and, sometimes, even death.
What explains the undocumented status of North Korean escapees in China? Beijing has a series of bilateral agreements with Pyongyang that address the treatment of individuals who cross into China without official authorization (Lee & Kim, 2011). Although China is a signatory of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (the Protocol), it evades its responsibilities under international law by labeling North Korean escapees as illegal economic migrants and not as refugees or asylum-seekers (Reddy, 2022). There are no options for North Korean escapees to apply for asylum or otherwise obtain legal status. In 2021, China also promulgated the “Land Borders Law”, which aims to protect territorial sovereignty and land border security within China. North Korean escapees in China will face greater challenges, as this new law will likely embolden Chinese law enforcement to continue denying the entry of North Koreans into China as refugees or asylum-seekers, detaining, and forcibly repatriating North Koreans who attempt to escape their country (Bartlett, 2021).
A core element of the Refugee Convention, to which China is a party, is the principle of non-refoulement under Article 33. This article states that “no Contracting State 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” (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1951). If forcibly returned to North Korea, escapees face a credible fear of persecution, harsh interrogation, torture, imprisonment, or even death (Scarlatoiu et al., 2021). China is failing to uphold its obligations under the Refugee Convention by arbitrarily labeling North Korean escapees as economic migrants and returning them while knowing the consequences these individuals could face. The Refugee Convention calls for a proper assessment to be conducted before an individual is repatriated, which the Chinese government is failing to do. China’s current practice of violating the principle of non-refoulement undermines the principles of the international refugee protection regime enshrined in the Refugee Convention (Reddy, 2022).
In 2014, the UN COI assigned liability on the Chinese government for aiding in crimes against humanity by its forcible repatriation of North Korean escapees. Evidence highlighted Chinese officials being aware of the treatment of escapees. The COI’s report condemned the Chinese government for such inhumane violations of international human rights law (United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, 2014). In a statement given by human rights activist, Kim Sang-Hun, at a congressional hearing, it was stated that China’s treatment of North Koreans, especially by causing them to remain undocumented, is in defiance of international agreements and constitutes a dereliction of its obligations as a United Nations member (U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004).
The undocumented status of North Korean escapees in China is a serious violation of international human rights law that leaves victims vulnerable to human rights violations. It is an unfortunate irony that North Koreans who escape in search of freedom fall prey to the evils that await them in China: unfair labor treatment, illegal marriages, forced prostitution, forced abortions, and forcible repatriation if caught by the authorities. It should be the mission of governments and local and international human rights organizations to pressure the North Korean and Chinese governments to observe their international law obligations to respect and protect fundamental human rights. It is vital to focus attention on the human rights violations faced by undocumented North Korean escapees and give voices to the voiceless.
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