The nightmare of young North Koreans: Untold tragedy of human rights situation in China

By Hanna Noh, Intern, CIVICUS Geneva Office 

“Hungry crowd is angry crowd”, said the delegation of China emphasising the nation’s understanding on human rights during the working group report on People’s Republic of China on 22nd October, as part of the 17th Universal Periodic Review session held from 21st October to 1st November 2013 in Geneva. I watched both with expectations and questions on how much China has been committed to improving human rights. The meeting highlighted many important questions submitted in advance; limited freedom of expression on the Internet, promoting ethnic minorities especially in Tibet and Xinjang, abolition of death the penalty and  ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The picture said to be of the nine young defectors aged from 15 to 23 sent back to North Korea. Photograph by on Monday 3rd June 2013

The picture said to be of the nine young defectors aged from 15 to 23 sent back to North Korea. Photograph by on Monday 3rd June 2013

Nevertheless, China’s irresponsible practice on refugees, especially those who fled from DPRK was not appropriately addressed. It was not only omitted from China’s national report, but also failed to receive substantial attention during the interactive dialogue. In May 2013, nine young North Korean defectors who are believed to be orphans were returned to their country, believably by the Chinese authority. The 9 starved children fled from North Korea and entered Laos through China under the protection of South Korean missionary. However, before they succeeded in getting in contact with the South Korean embassy for refugee protection, the group was detained by the Laos authority and sent back to China. Until they landed at Beijing airport, the group believed that they were going to South Korea. In Beijing, the unfortunate 9 children were boarded to North Korea. However, Beijing denies that the Chinese authorities are responsible for such practice. Now the returned defectors are being used for propaganda purposees, appearing on national broadcast saying that they “were able to be back to their homeland thanks to the ‘generous leader’”. But no one knows what fate awaits them when the media spotlight is gone.

Every year, thousands of North Koreans risk their lives to escape their country either due to severe starvation or discrimination and repression. Yet, even if they succeed to cross the border to China, they still live in fear of arrest. A number of refugee testimonies confirm that repatriated defectors face imprisonment, forced labor, torture and even execution.

China does not recognise North Korean defectors as official refugees. According to a white paper published by South Korean think-tank, Korea Institute for National Unification in 2011, State Safety Agencies of China and North Korea have made a bilateral agreement strictly controlling movement of citizens across the border. In order for the defectors to receive appropriate protection as being refugees, they need to meet the criteria set forth in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, that they were forced to leave the country due to political oppression or threats. However, by defining them as illegal aliens who migrated for economic reasons, the Chinese government avoids its obligation of accepting them as refugees, even breaking the non-refoulement principle clearly stated in Article 33 of the Convention. This practice ignores evident consequence of human rights violation when defectors are returned against their will.

Will China keep deporting North Koreans and defy its commitment to the Convention, knowing the severe punishment the defectors will face when returned? If China believes that a hungry crowd is an angry crowd, shouldn’t China accept the people who fled from starvation for humanitarian reasons? Having that background and the questions going through my mind, it was bitter to watch member states remaining silent on this serious human rights violation happening in China. During the interactive dialogue, only two delegations, Czech Republic and Republic of Korea, called on China to appropriately protect the North Korean asylum seekers and refugees from being deported to North Korea. No further progress was added in the report.

While reviewing the UPR session on China in the office, I thought of what Robert Frost said. “Poetry is about the grief, politics is about the grievance.” Let moaning for the tragic stories of the retrieved to be the work of literature. Politics should express anger for the injustice and address the world to change it. The Human Rights Council and the UPR provide an arena where member states discuss practical approaches to resolving problems on domestic politics. Nonetheless, if the Human Rights Council stops urging China to take appropriate actions towards North Korean defectors, if we the individuals don’t feel resentment on behalf of the suffers of the returned North Koreans, such inhumane practice will continue to prevail around us.

MCCURRY, JUSTIN, “ UN ‘extremely concerned’ for repatriated North Korean defectors”, Guardian, 3rd June 2013,

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