North Korean Refugees in China: Looking at the Evidence


The DPRK-PRC Border, near Tumen, PRC (Summer 2010)

The debate on humanitarian aid to the DPRK rages, both here on CanKor as well as outside of CanKor’s virtual walls. However, there is one aspect of this unfortunate situation that is often overlooked in the ongoing dialogue: what happens to those who are affected by hunger.

The previous famine in North Korea brought many changes to the country, but none was possibly more remarkable than the catalyst it provided for the largest exodus of people the country had seen since the Korean War. The numbers betray this story: pre-famine, the Ministry of Unification tells us that there were less than 1,000 North Koreans settled in the ROK. As of April 17, there are more than 21,000.

These numbers do not bely the danger that North Koreans face when attempting to reach safe haven. For most North Korea watchers, the journey of a North Korean refugee is well documented: for the benefit of those unaware of this journey, here’s a synopsis. The North Korean who wishes to leave their own country usually does so without the permission of the proper authorities, and thus technically commits an act of treason when leaving the country. This act of leaving the country is usually completed by crossing the DPRK-PRC border. Once across the border, the North Korean faces an additional challenge: Beijing, in agreement with the North Korean regime, repatriates any North Koreans that have been apprehended by the Chinese authorities. If repatriated, the North Korean then faces interrogations and what has reported to be at least a three month sentence to a specialized labour camp. However, if the North Korean has been in contact with missionaries, human rights organizations, or been exposed to what the North Korean regime would deem subversive influences, the interrogations and prison sentences can grow exponentially longer. In extreme cases, public executions follow.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. The very fact that 21,000 North Koreans have successfully made their escape demonstrates that there is a viable route from Yanji/Jilin province to safe haven. Since the late 1990’s, Evangelical missionaries, human rights groups and more often than not in the past few years, private enterprises have set up what has been dubbed an “underground railroad” which ferries North Koreans from China to third countries such as Thailand and Mongolia. From these processing points, North Koreans can choose a final destination. Most choose the ROK; there are a handful that choose other countries, such as the United States.

However, this so-called underground railroad has oft been recognized as a temporary solution to a rather extensive problem. For instance, not all the North Koreans who leave the country into China are repatriated or find safe haven: many are left stranded, with the most vulnerable sexually trafficked. The exact number of North Koreans within China is unknown and estimates wildly vary. NGOs like to peg the number high (some groups lamenting that nearly 300,000 North Koreans remain in China), while other academic studies have made more modest estimates (6,000 – 16,000, according to Johns Hopkins’ Courtland Robinson).

On a more fundamental level, China as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, has an obligation to bring forth foreign nationals seeking asylum for refugee determination and to keep them out of harm’s way until this determination has been completed. With Beijing’s official policy in quite obvious terms contravening these provisions, the official excuse coming out of MOFA is that North Koreans who cross the border into the PRC are “economic migrants,” and not refugees per se.

Of course, if we are going to parse words like that, despite the fact that indeed, most North Koreans’ migration patterns are most likely economically based, the very fact that they face certain punishment upon repatriation creates (brace for the legal jargon) a prima facie presumption that they are refugees.

Because of this policy, Beijing has faced some rather tough criticism from the North Korean human rights community. For the past ten years since North Koreans have been escaping from their home country, NGOs have been steadfast in demanding that Beijing change its official policy to conform with their own acquiescence to international law. In fact, it seems that for many human rights advocates, success has been measured in the absolute: without an official change in Beijing’s attitudes, there is no success.

Having been involved in these campaigns for the past half decade, I have come to find this definition of success somewhat problematic.

First of all, Beijing has some very reasonable explanations for repatriating North Koreans. The PRC is probably afraid of two things that may happen if they reverse policy: a massive influx of North Koreans into northern China, and what may be more troublesome to Beijing, a collapse of the regime that may come from such a large exodus. Assuming that Beijing probably has an OPLAN5029 equivalent somewhere hidden in the Ministry of Defence’s archives, it would make sense from a pure policymaking point of view that the costs and criticisms of repatriating North Koreans are a lot cheaper than dealing with hundreds of thousands of North Koreans fleeing into northern China or occupying the DPRK north of the Daedong river.

As such, without giving Beijing a more compelling reason to stop the repatriation, it’s unlikely we’ll see a policy reversal anytime soon.

This leads to the question of success: should complete policy reversal be the only yardstick to measure whether campaigns to protect these refugees have been successful?

The answer is most likely in the negative. From an organizational perspective, having only one lofty milestone on the road to success is more or less setting oneself up for failure. Most NGOs do not have the patience and consistency to create the “twenty-year plan” for policy reversal. Furthermore, it seems that rather than being the means to an ultimate goal (the ultimate goal being the safe transit of North Koreans to a third country), Chinese policy reversal itself has evolved into the ultimate goal itself.

On this point, if we are to measure how many North Koreans have reached safe haven in the past ten years, we can see that this number has grown nearly twenty-fold in the past decade or so. In 1999, 148 North Koreans settled in the ROK; in 2009, this figure jumped to 2,952. There are most likely different factors that have caused this jump. For instance, underground railroad networks that were only nascent in 1999 have probably grown larger, more efficient, and more sophisticated ten years later, in turn causing fewer repatriations. Also, North Koreans who have settled in the ROK themselves have probably been instrumental in bringing out relatives and friends who were left behind, or so-called “chain defections.” These chain defections have no doubt contributed to the sheer number of North Koreans who have left the DPRK.

However, such an analysis cannot be complete without examining the role of the PRC itself. From my own experience talking to those involved in the actual transit of North Koreans in China, PRC involvement is somewhat dichotomous. There is the official policy that comes out of Beijing, and then there is how that policy is executed by the local officials on the ground. During times when China itself is put under the microscope, such as the recent Beijing Olympics, or the Ling-Lee affair, Beijing leans on local officials to ensure that they are implementing official p0licy. For instance, during the Olympics, sources on the ground have told me that refugee traffic was almost at a standstill due to tight restrictions put on the border area and the around-the-clock surveillance put on known safe-houses in Yanbian/Jilin province.

On the other hand, when this pressure from Beijing begins to diminish, local officials are more likely to turn a blind eye to refugee traffic, as long as it does not create news headlines. The tight scrutiny during the period around the Olympics tell us that the local officials in Yanbian/Jilin province have to a certain degree, near omniscient knowledge of the underground railroad’s activities in the area. However, the defector numbers tell us that this scrutiny is not on full-court press, 24/7. After all, being an autonomous district in China, many of Yanbian’s officials are ethnic Koreans, and even if they are not, they are first-hand witnesses (and sympathetic) to the difference of the standard of living between northern Chinese and the North Koreans coming out of the DPRK. Another explanation to this type of behaviour is more practical: since the vast majority of North Koreans have no intention of settling in China anyway, it provides less of a headache for local officials if North Koreans transit quickly out of China, rather than become a local problem. In fact, the more efficient the transit network is in getting North Koreans out of China, it seems that it gives more of an incentive for a local official to turn a blind-eye to an increasing number of North Koreans who are leaving the country, regardless of what type of policy comes out of Beijing.

This leads to a rather curious conclusion: one of the reasons why North Koreans are settling in the ROK in increasing numbers is that the Chinese authorities, at least on a local level, are allowing them to do so.

If that is the case, then one has to wonder whether this “blind-eye” solution is in the short to medium turn, as good as it gets. As long as North Koreans do not create a headache either for Beijing or the local authorities, they will for the most part be allowed to transit out of China.

This in turn creates a rather peculiar Catch-22 situation if policy-reversal is an ultimate goal. The more you pressure China into reversing policy, the more likely Beijing will feel the heat, and the more likely this heat will be transferred to local officials. This in turn forces local officials to turn up the heat on underground railroad networks, putting North Koreans in jeopardy. On the other hand, the less advocacy (and heat) you put on Beijing, the less likely Beijing pressures its local officials, and the more likely the local officials will keep the status quo ante – but the more likely policy reversal does not take place.

This is if policy reversal is the only objective when it comes to human rights advocacy. As mentioned before, policy reversal may be one of the means to attaining the objective of safe passage for North Koreans that escape through China; but it is still only one of the means. It is certainly the most effective and permanent ways of attaining this objective, but at the time being remains a work-in-progress that will require a significant amount of patience, effort, a change of Chinese attitudes, and luck to see through. Meanwhile, the “blind-eye” solution that we have at the moment may be precarious and certainly not a permanent solution, but for the time being may be as good as it gets. We in the human rights world must remind ourselves that the world of policy is rarely cut and dry; for the most part policy is both set and implemented in a world chock full of grey.

Before my friends in the human rights world howl at me for compromising and selling-out, let me outline a few recommendations on what NGOs can do to address this Catch-22 situation.

First, the North Korean human rights community needs to change tacks when it comes to China. Yes, Beijing is pursuing an abhorrent policy that sends North Koreans to torture and imprisonment. However, ten years of condemning the PRC for its actions has resulted in naught. In fact, as we’ve seen, putting the heat on Beijing may in fact endanger the very North Koreans were are trying to assist. Instead, attempting to address Beijing’s concerns regarding North Korean refugees and dialoguing, instead of scolding China may be alternatives that have not been attempted – but should be. A major part of this is convincing respective governments that working with Beijing on this issue may be the only permanent solution to what currently is a small issue, but without a moment’s notice, can become disastrous. Good examples of starting to work with China on this issue have been suggested by figures such as Paul Wolfowitz and Canada’s own Barry Devolin.

Second, the NGO community can continue, and may I say, bolster the efforts of the underground railroad in efficiently transiting refugees out of northern China. As mentioned before, the more efficient the operation, the more likely local officials in China will be able to turn a blind-eye. In the past, many refugees have spent a considerable amount of time languishing in safe houses because either funds or guides were unavailable to transit them. According to my own personal experiences, some defectors could wait nearly two years before receiving the go-ahead for transit. Reducing this turnaround time to days, rather than weeks, months, or even years, can incentivize local officials to continue this blind-eye policy while reducing the type of pressure that comes from Beijing when large refugee populations start accumulating in northern China. As a corollary to this, potential donors need to be savvy about how their money is to be spent. It is not enough any more simply to give to groups that transport North Koreans away from China: there are enough organizations involved in this work, as attested by the sheer growing numbers that we have witnessed over the years. We now have the luxury to examine which groups are doing their jobs effectively and efficiently.

Finally, when it comes to public advocacy, human rights groups focused on refugees should also look at why refugees exist in the first place. North Koreans would not attempt to escape the DPRK if the conditions within the country were adequate enough to survive in. Where human rights groups have put their focus has been on political human rights, such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion. These are very important rights that need to be addressed, and should be continued to be addressed. However, it has not been the lack of political rights that have been the primary motivation behind the dislocation and migration patterns of North Koreans; rather, as Beijing correctly points out, the primary motivation for the vast majority of refugees is one of economics, and particularly during the famine years, hunger. If bettering the overall situation of the North Korean people is indeed the primary objective of human rights groups (as which it should), then these same groups must begin to think about and address both the political and economic well being of North Koreans within the DPRK. Rather than reject such notions of humanitarian aid and development assistance categorically (often with flimsy evidence), human rights groups should also begin to take such issues seriously. Rejecting humanitarian aid in a time of genuine hunger will only increase refugee flows. And although this may be the very result which some human rights advocates view as a catalyst to regime collapse, another mass exodus will no doubt force Beijing to bring the pressure on to local officials, increasing vigilance and in turn decreasing the ability of these refugees to escape China outright. And there is no guarantee that such an exodus would even cause a regime collapse: even Paul Wolfowitz, who nobody will mistake as a bleeding heart liberal, calls these fears “exaggerated.”

As we find ourselves upon another possible humanitarian crisis in the DPRK, we have to remind ourselves what happened the last time such a crisis beset North Korea. The bad news is that we have seen this movie before – and no doubt, if humanitarian aid is withheld, and the crisis is indeed genuine, we will again see North Korean refugees streaming across the Tumen river en masse. The good news is that having seen the movie before, we can be better prepared to deal with the sequel this time around. This will only be possible if we take a hard look at the historical evidence, stop speculating, accept reality, and prepare ourselves accordingly. Otherwise, this sequel, like most other sequels, will be even worse than the original.

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