Rights activists say China neglecting North Korean refugees

People pass by a wire fence at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju South Korea, near the border with North Korea, March 24, 2023. [AP Photo]

Human rights activists and former officials are accusing Beijing of violating both Chinese and international laws, putting thousands of North Korean refugees in imminent danger.

Approximately 2,000 North Korean refugees are detained at the Chinese border "awaiting imminent forced repatriation" by a Chinese government that has been refusing to protect them, said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, chair of the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC).

The commission held a hearing Tuesday to discuss the fate of North Koreans detained by Beijing since the border between the two countries closed during the pandemic. Repatriation for the North Koreans means torture, forced labor in camps that yield export income for the Pyongyang regime, or death.

The number of North Korean refugees detained by China could be higher as the number quoted by Smith was first cited in 2022 by Elizabeth Salmon, the U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea's human rights.

"China has failed to accord protection to North Korean refugees as it is required to do so under its domestic law, international law, and humanitarian principles," said Ethan Hee-seok Shin, a legal analyst at Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group. He spoke to VOA Korean Service before he testified Tuesday.

China considers North Korean refugees to be illegal immigrants. North Korea regards those who flee the repressive country as traitors. The regime denies its people freedom of speech, religion, mobility or assembly.

The U.N. defines refugees as those forced to flee their country because of persecution, war or violence.

A large-scale repatriation of some 2,000 North Koreans who were in China while seeking to reach a third country could mean a humanitarian and human rights crisis, according to the CECC.

Violating law

As a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol as well as the U.N. Convention against Torture, China is obligated under the principle of nonrefoulement to protect those who are at risk of facing human rights abuses upon return to their country.

Shin said in a statement submitted to the hearing that Beijing has been neglecting Article 32 of its constitution, which says China "may grant asylum to foreigners who request it on political grounds."

He also pointed out Article 46 of the Exit and Entry Administration Law that Beijing enacted in 2012, which says, "Foreigners applying for refugee status may, during the screening process, stay in China on the strength of temporary identity certificates issued by public security organs."

According to the CECC, Beijing has been blocking the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees from reaching out to North Korean refugees in China even though it agreed in 1995 to allow UNHCR staff full access to all refugees.

The UNHCR is responsible for determining refugee status and registering asylum seekers in China.

Jung-hoon Lee, a former South Korean ambassador-at-large for North Korean human rights who testified virtually at this week's Washington hearing, told VOA Korean in an email that it is time to call out both Beijing and UNHCR.

"Beijing is reneging on its obligation," he said, and "UNHCR on its part is not doing its job" of "resorting to binding arbitration" and putting pressure on China to allow its staff to access North Korean asylum seekers.

In response to the hearing, the spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, told VOA Korean on Wednesday that the government "has properly handled the issues related to the illegal entry of North Koreans in accordance with China's law, international law, and the principle of humanitarianism."

He continued, "This so-called committee, biased against China, is distorting facts, and making irresponsible remarks and accusations of China's social system and the relevant policies. Its rhetoric is full of ignorance and prejudice."

He added, "We urge the U.S. Congress and relevant parties to reflect on their own problems, stop interfering in China's internal affairs, and do more things that are conducive to China-U.S. relations."

UN's role

During the hearing, Smith, the CEEC chair, said he had shared his "deep concern" about the plight of the North Koreans with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in an April meeting. On Tuesday, Smith appealed to Guterres to "please use your influence to the utmost to dissuade the Chinese government from forcibly repatriating these refugees."

In response, U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said at a news briefing on Tuesday that Guterres "stands for the respect of international refugee law and against refoulement."

According to Robert King, special envoy for North Korean Human Rights during the Obama administration, who testified at the hearing, the U.N. is careful in its discussions with China on the issue.

He told VOA Korean that the U.N. is cautious about urging China to take steps to protect refugees or "publicly criticizing them" as Chinese officials who hold important positions at the U.N. wield considerable influence at the U.N.

Lee, the former South Korean ambassador, who is currently the dean of Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, said at the hearing that the U.N. General Assembly's (UNGA) Credentials Committee should examine North Korea's role at the U.N. as well.

"If South Africa was bad enough to be suspended from all U.N. activities for 20 years, shouldn't the U.N. General Assembly consider doing the same to North Korea until the nonproliferation and human rights goals are met?" Lee said.

In 1974, the UNGA suspended South Africa's participation at the organization over instituting apartheid as a state policy.

Risks refugees face

According to the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a Seoul-based rights group promoting North Korean human rights, Beijing and Pyongyang profit financially by sending refugees back to North Korea.

In a statement sent to the hearing, the rights group said after refugees are forcibly repatriated by China, North Korea sends them to forced labor camps where they manufacture fake eyelashes and wigs that are exported to Chinese companies.

Business networks linking Beijing and Pyongyang that employ refugees as laborers earned an estimated $22.6 million in April alone for the North Korean regime and Chinese companies, according to the group.

"There is a high probability that [a] portion of products originating from North Korea but produced for Chinese companies have been made in prisons detaining repatriated North Korean refugees from China," the statement said.