SEOUL — Senior South Korean officials are warning that a human rights calamity is brewing in China, where thousands of North Korean defectors may be forcibly returned to their home country to face dire punishments.
While migrant crises challenge policymakers from the Mediterranean Sea to the U.S.-Mexico frontier, the fate of thousands of vulnerable North Koreans now living in China poses a particularly thorny diplomatic and humanitarian problem.
With the deeply isolated regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un soon expected to reopen its borders, closed for years as a quarantine measure against COVID-19, forcible repatriations by Chinese authorities look set to result in detention, physical abuse and even death, experts say.
Officials, lawmakers, researchers and victims spoke Wednesday at a conference in Seoul, “Forced repatriation of North Korean escapees detained in China.”
“Their human rights should be respected and they should be allowed entry into any country they hope to go to,” said South Korean Unification Minister Kim Young-ho. “South Korea will accept all escapees who wish to come to Korea, there will not be any discrimination or disadvantages.”
But with Beijing-Seoul relations frayed, there is no indication that China will allow those who fled North Korea, whom it considers economic migrants, to leave for South Korea.
Given the grim conditions prevailing in parts of North Korea, China is ignoring the clear preference of the migrants themselves and their likely fate if forced to return to the North, said Choe Jae-hyeong, a parliamentarian with South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party of Korea. “Escaping from North Korea is a clear choice for their lives,” he said.
Conference speakers demanded action from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and urged China to live up to the various human rights conventions it has signed.
But they also said there is a two-month window of opportunity during which leverage may be applied: Chinese officials are anxious to avoid negative publicity ahead of its hosting of the Hangzhou Asian Games, set to run from Sept. 23 to Oct. 8.
A looming calamity
The issue is a long-running sore spot on the divided, heavily armed Korean peninsula. Ever since the catastrophic famines of the early 1990s, desperate North Koreans have been crossing into more prosperous China. While that number has declined in recent years, those who illegally enter the country lack any legal protections, face human trafficking risks, and, if caught, can be forcibly returned home to face the justice of Pyongyang’s totalitarian regime.
According to Su Bo-bae, a researcher at the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, 8,148 cases of forced repatriation from China to North Korea have been recorded. With China upgrading its people-monitoring infrastructure with high technologies such as smart IDs and artificial intelligence systems, as well as biometrics and facial recognition software, that number could soon soar.
Citing Elizabeth Salmon, the U.N.‘s special rapporteur on North Korean human rights, Mr. Choe said that between 600 and 2,000 North Koreans in China, rounded up during and after the worst of the COVID crisis, face forced deportation in the second half of this year when North Korea is expected to re-open its gates. There, they face a spectrum of punishment for their “anti-socialist behavior.”
Recorded conversations from a handful of former inmates offered grim details.
One told how Chinese authorities in a border detention center continually reassured North Korean detainees, for fear they would commit suicide before being returned home. Another recalled how, after being deported to North Korea in shackles and placed in a labor camp, he and fellow inmates were fed only corn. A malnourished old lady disappeared, likely due to starvation.
Another captive pleaded in vain to be allowed to work. Instead, he was kept, kneeling, in a cell for entire days, generating agonizing joint cramps that made it almost impossible to stand up. Lower body pressure sores were so severe that his skin came off with his clothes.
Mr. Choe said other defectors forced to return to North Korea spoke of facing sexual assaults and forced abortions.
Some 75% of North Koreans migrants in China are women, and illegals living with Chinese men face an especially precarious existence. They try to avoid people, suffer nightmares, are subject to uncontrollable crying and carry suicide pills in case of capture by Chinese authorities, said Kim Jeong-ah, who heads civic group “Rights for Female North Korean Refugees.”
Ms. Kim, herself a North Korean defector who made it to South Korea, has not seen her daughter for 14 years: Her Chinese husband has assumed all parental rights.
Some deportees face the ultimate punishment.
“If it is found that they contacted South Korean people, the severity of their sentences become more serious,” said Ms. Kim. “They may face execution.”
China has signed a number of international pacts on the treatment of migrants, including the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1984 Convention against Torture.
But Beijing has shut down attempts to discuss the human rights of citizens of North Korea, a nation China fought for during the Korean War, and with which it shares both a mutual defense treaty and antipathy toward the U.S. and its regional allies.
On Monday, China’s mission to the UN said it opposes a proposed U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss rights abuses in North Korea, arguing it could “intensify conflict and antagonism.”
Meanwhile, the strained state of China-South Korea bilateral relations — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has moved to boost relations with both the U.S. and Japan, irking Beijing — is not amenable to a solution.
But China is not the only problem. South Korea’s Ambassador for North Korean Human Rights Lee Shin-wha alleged that international bodies are not pulling their weight.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees “has the right to ask for third-party mediation but did not execute that right,” she said. “On forcible reparation, there has not been active discussion.”
UNHCR officials have “pointed out the uncooperative nature of the Chinese government,” Amb. Lee acknowledged. But she added, “We want a clear and official statement.”
She vowed to raise the North Korean defector issue at Friday’s Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral summit President Biden is hosting at Camp David. Any moves agreed to assist North Koreans in China must be swiftly executed.
China, “may postpone repatriation until after the Asian Games,” said Bae Sun-kyoo, an editorial writer for South Korea’s leading daily, the conservative Chosun Ilbo. “We can buy some time and make political and diplomatic efforts in that two-month window.”
Mr. Choe agreed. “The time should be cleverly utilized,” he said.