by Hibberd Kline
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia
BEIJING, China – According to the South Korean media, nine North Korean refugees were handed over to the North Korean authorities by China last week.
The nine are part of a group of more than thirty North Korean refugees who have been rounded up by the Chinese authorities this month in separate locations in the city of Shenyang. The refugees are reportedly being held in the northern Chinese city of Changchun, where they await processing and deportation to North Korea.
According to human rights group Amnesty International, some of the refugees are believed to have successfully contacted a South Korean organization devoted to helping North Korean refugees escape to South Korea.
Amnesty called upon the Chinese government not to forcibly repatriate the refugees earlier this month. The group’s Asia-Pacific Director, Sam Zarifi declared that China must allow “…North Koreans to seek asylum in China and other countries and provide them with access to the United Nations refugee agency or other relevant refugee channels.”
Additional activist groups and members of the South Korean government have since echoed the group’s pleas.
Seoul’s traditional stance regarding North Korean refugees in China has been less confrontational. However, following the failure of low-level talks on the fate of the refugees to achieve favorable results, the South Korean Foreign Ministry announced that it would seek international help on the issue at a meeting of the the United Nations Council on Human Rights in Geneva later this week.
According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, China believes that the issue of North Korean refugees is not suitable for discussion at the United Nations and should be handled pursuant to domestic Chinese laws.
South Korean politicians have also weighed-in on the issue. According to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, “When it comes to the North Korean defectors, it is right for the Chinese Government to handle them in line with international rules as long as they are not criminals.”
The South Korean Parliament also recently adopted a resolution demanding that China discontinue the repatriation of refugees. One lawmaker, Park-Sun young, even went so far as to begin a hunger strike in front of the Chinese embassy on Tuesday in order to draw attention to the refugees’ cause.
Human rights activists, relatives of the detained refugees and South Korean celebrities also staged protests outside the Chinese embassy to demand that China forgoe repatriating the refugees.
For its part, China has often expressed an apparent desire to play a positive role in the Korean Peninsula. China has sent aid to North Korea and has repeatedly encouraged all parties to return to the stalled six-party talks over the future of North Korea’s nuclear program. However, China appears to remain unflinching on the issue of refugees.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded last Tuesday to pressure from South Korea by repeating its long-standing policy of treating the refugees as “illegal economic immigrants.” China has close ties with the North Korean regime and systematically captures and forcibly repatriates refugees who cross over into Chinese territory.
The typical journey for refugees fleeing North Korea is long and perilous. Refugees generally cross the border into China on foot, then hide themselves inside China before securing transportation to a third country. The lucky refugees eventually make their way to South Korea. However, human rights activists and North Korean refugees say that repatriated North Koreans are often tortured, sent to remote prison camps, or publicly executed.
Following the death of North Korea’s “dear leader” Kim Jong-il and the rapid assent of his son Kim Jong-un to power, activists in the South have relayed reports of harsher punishments for those who get caught trying to flee the country. Some refugees have suggested that punishment may extend to three generations of an escapee’s family.
Tens of thousands of North Koreans are thought to be currently hiding in China. Estimates put the total number of North Korean refugees who have escaped to South Korea since 1950 at more than 20,000.
China is a party to the United Nations Refugee Convention (UNHCR), but has been accused by human rights groups of failing to live up to its obligations under the convention.
For more information, please see:
BBC News– China ‘Sent Back Nine North Korean Refugees’ — 24 February 2012
Bangkok Post — China Returns Nine Refugees to North Korea — 24 February 2012
Korea Herald — Nine North Korean Defectors Repatriated to Their Homeland — 23 February 2012
BBC News — Seoul Urges China on North Korea Refugees — 22 February 2012
New York Times — China Should Not Repatriate North Korean Refugees, Seoul Says — 22 February 2012
Voice of America — China Rejects Pleas Not to Repatriate North Koreans — 21 February 2012
Amnesty International — Amnesty International Urges China to Avoid Forced Repatriation of North Korean Defectors — 14 February 2012