China Spurns U.N. Criticism After Sending N. Korean Refugees Back to Uncertain Fate

By Patrick Goodenough | June 4, 2013 | 4:36 AM EDT

Civic groups that help North Korean refugees say Pyongyang has toughened its stance towards those who make unsuccessful escape attempts since Kim Jong-un took office. (AP Photo)

( – China’s longstanding refusal to treat North Koreans who have fled their homeland as refugees is getting new scrutiny, after Beijing last week sent a group of young North Koreans back to a regime with a history of submitting repatriated defectors to torture or even execution.

The government of Laos – a communist-ruled nation, like China and North Korea – is also under fire, over its role in returning the nine, who reportedly include minors as young as 15 and believed to be orphans.

China on Monday angrily dismissed criticism from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) while South Korea’s government rejected allegations that it did not do enough to try to save the group. A South Korean foreign ministry official told the Yonhap news agency that the government had “been in multiple contacts with the Chinese authorities” to prevent the refugees from being sent back to North Korea.

The plight of North Koreans fleeing oppression and starvation has for years resonated in the United States, where concerns about their mistreatment and forcible repatriation are cited in the North Korean Human Rights Act, passed in 2004 and reauthorized in 2008 and 2012.

The U.S. says China is violating articles of the 1951 International Refugee Convention, including one saying that no state may return refugees to a territory where their life or freedom would be under threat.

China is also a party to the Convention against Torture, which says no country should expel or return a person to a country “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

But Beijing, Pyongyang’s closest ally, says the North Koreans are illegal economic migrants rather than refugees protected under international treaties.

The latest case involves nine North Koreans who according to human rights advocacy groups first crossed covertly into China in 2011.

An estimated half a million desperate North Koreans have taken that route – the only practical exit out of the Stalinist country – in recent years. They typically lie low in China, sometimes helped by South Korean missionary activists there, until some manage to make their way to third countries, often south-east Asian countries that border southern China, usually as a step to their final destination, South Korea. More than 25,000 have ended up in South Korea over the decades since the Korean War, most of them since the mid-1990s.

On May 10 the nine youngsters crossed from China into Laos, accompanied by a South Korean pastor and his wife who had been with them in China. According to Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, a Japan-based non-governmental organization (NGO) involved in helping refugees since 1998, Laotian authorities held them at an immigration center in Vientiane before sending them back to China on May 28. South Korean government officials say China then returned them to North Korea a day later.

The Laotian foreign ministry in a statement Monday said the North Koreans had entered Laos illegally and that the two South Koreans accompanying them had “committed human trafficking.”

It said they had been handed over to their respective embassies. (The South Koreans were put on a flight to Seoul on May 28.)

On May 30 the UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, issued a statement voicing grave concern about the safety of the nine, whom he said were evidently not given a chance to have their asylum claims assessed.

He urged all states to “refrain from any future measure that could directly or indirectly lead to the return of a person to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened,” and said his department was seeking information on the whereabouts of the nine.

China’s foreign ministry hit back on Monday, telling the UNHCR not to make “irresponsible remarks based on unverified news.”

“The nine people entered China on May 27 and left China for Korea on May 28 holding legal and valid documents and visas,” spokesman Hong Lei told a press briefing. “Chinese border authorities inspected their travel documents and approved their exit.”

Hong denied that North Korea had asked China to send them back.

‘Treachery against the nation’

For years U.S. government officials have brought up the issue of North Korean refugees in their human rights dialogue with China, but Beijing maintains it is doing nothing wrong.

In its annual report on human rights around the world, published in April, the State Department said the Chinese government in 2012 “continued to consider all North Koreans ‘economic migrants’ rather than refugees or asylum seekers, and the UNHCR continued to have no access” to them.

In 2010, North Korea made the crime of defection a “crime of treachery against the nation,” and citizens who are apprehended abroad and repatriated face a grim future. Civic groups that help defectors say Pyongyang has further toughened its stance since Kim Jong-un took office.

“These returnees often face serious consequences, including the possibility of imprisonment, torture, and even execution,” U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, told a congressional panel in 2011.

Those in North Korean prison camps who are accused of having associated with foreigners or missionaries while out of the country are additionally targeted.

“[R]efugees and defectors who had been in prison stated that prisoners who had contact with foreign missionaries or foreigners were generally treated worse than other inmates,” the State Department said in 2012 report in international religious freedom, released last week.

The U.S.-based NGO Human Rights Watch says it has received similar information over years of interviews with refugees.

“Persons suspected of contact with South Koreans, or attempting to defect to South Korea, are frequently given lengthy terms in horrendous detention facilities known as kyo-hwa-so (correctional, reeducation centers) where forced labor is combined with chronic food and medicine shortages, harsh working conditions, and mistreatment by guards,” it says.

HRW called on Pyongyang to reveal the whereabouts and wellbeing of the nine returned refugees. The group’s deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, also criticized Laos and China, and said the three governments “will share the blame if further harm comes to these people.”

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow