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Op-Ed

China’s Forced Repatriation of North Korean Refugees Incurs United Nations Censure

Roberta Cohen

For the first time, China is under broad international censure for its forced repatriation of North Koreans crossing into its territory illegally. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI), set up in 2013 to investigate the “systematic, widespread, and grave” human rights violations in North Korea, has implicated China as possibly facilitating North Korea’s commission of crimes against humanity. The COI’s 400-page report points out that over a period of two decades, China has forcibly returned tens of thousands of North Koreans almost all of whom have been subjected to inhuman treatment and punishment in the form of “imprisonment, execution, torture, arbitrary detention, deliberate starvation, illegal cavity searches, forced abortions and other sexual violence.” It calls on China to halt its collaboration with North Korean security agencies in identifying and forcing back North Koreans and to extend asylum to persons fleeing the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea). COI Chair Michael Kirby, a former justice of the High Court of Australia, in a special letter appended to the report, cautions China that its officials could be “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity” by sharing information with North Korea’s security bodies and forcibly turning back those who try to escape.

The evidence amassed in the COI report challenges China’s claims that 1) North Koreans entering China illegally are economic migrants who must be deported, and 2) that those forcibly returned are not punished, even though it is a criminal offense to leave North Korea without permission. In an effort to obstruct the commission’s work, China denied it entry to its border areas, and then declared the COI findings to be “divorced from reality,” because it was unable to visit. Nonetheless, the three COI commissioners concluded that China was enabling North Korea to commit crimes against humanity by forcibly returning them to conditions of danger, thereby standing in violation of its obligations under international human rights and refugee law.

Although China’s initial response has been defensive, the more fundamental question is whether over the longer term, China will see it in its interests to modify its policies. The COI report appears to take the longer view. For one, the report warns that by continuing to cooperate with North Korea in forcibly repatriating its citizens, Chinese officials might end up being held accountable in future trials of North Koreans. Second, it points out that this can be avoided if China helps modify North Korea’s practices and policies by raising with the DPRK’s “Supreme Leader” and other high-level authorities the crimes to which repatriated North Koreans have been subjected.

It suggests that there is good reason for China to take offense at North Korea’s policies. The forced abortions carried out by North Korea on repatriated women have been racially based because the women have become impregnated by Chinese men; and the infanticide perpetrated against children born to such women has been carried out because they are part Chinese. Furthermore, allowing North Korean security agents free rein to carry out abductions on Chinese soil and implement ‘shoot to kill’ orders on the Chinese side of the border is an infringement of China’s sovereignty. Violating the international refugee convention so blatantly through forcible repatriations also tarnishes China’s reputation with other governments and international organizations. North Koreans who cross the border, the COI report points out, must have “free access to diplomatic and consular representations of any State that may be willing to extend nationality or other forms of protection to them.”

This paper examines the significance of the COI’s findings on China’s forced repatriation of North Koreans, especially in light of the UN’s history on this question, discusses the reasons for China’s response, and closes with options for addressing the problem. It argues for the development of an international strategy involving the United Nations, governments, NGOs and other concerned actors to encourage a change in China’s policies and practices.

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