Recent Crackdown in China
Current Background - May 2002
Impact on Refugees Now in Hiding
Starting in March 2002, when 25 North Koreans dashed into the Spanish
Embassy in Beijing, the world's attention was riveted on China, and its
policy of forcibly returning all captured North Korean refugees to their
At that point, China's "Strike Hard" policy was already a year old, and
many asylum seekers had been repatriated, reportedly to face prison terms,
torture and in many cases, charges of treason.
Then, in May, when another 5 North Koreans, all members of one
family, were dragged from Japan's Consulate General in Shengyang
and arrested, the world became even more fascinated with these people and their
attempts to reach freedom.
Because of these events, our organization was flooded with requests for comments
and information. E-mails and calls poured in from all around the world.
Among the many journalists who contacted us was
Eric Baculinao of America's NBC news organization. The questions from
Eric, who is based in Beijing, were excellent, so with his permission, here
are the questions he asked, followed by our answers.
How serious is the problem of North Korean refugees hiding in China? What
is your estimate of their total numbers? How does your organization help
them? How do you describe the Chinese authorities's attitude and policy on
the refugees' issue and on the work of your organization? Is the forcible
repatriation of North Koreans getting worse?
There are ever fewer places remaining in China where
North Korean refugees can live and survive in hiding.
At the National Security Professionals Conference held in
Beijing in April 2001, a plan for a so-called "Strike Hard Campaign"
was set forth. The national leaders of China, including PRC
President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, presented
lectures emphasizing that "a severe blow must be given to offenders
to reinforce security."
Each ministry will be guided by actual local conditions
to implement the plan in more concrete terms. The document
of the Longjin Security Office in Jilin Prov. specifies that it is
positioning "another milestone in developing security," that
"the security of society will be significantly improved
within two years," and that "offenders will find themselves
with absolutely no place left to hide."
The Chinese government steadfastly maintains its formal
position that "there are no refugees from North Korea." Thus,
as soon as such people are found, the government is arresting
them as "illegal aliens" or "illegal sojourners." Then,
following their arrest, custody, and interrogation, they are
Therefore, even if a North Korean in China qualifies as
a refugee as defined by the international Convention on the
Status of Refugees, Chinese municipal law is considered
infringed. The North Korea refugees are termed illegal
aliens and illegal sojourners. Ethnic Koreans living in
China, who take care of refugees, are accused of abetting
illegal immigration or aiding illegal stays.
Estimates point to at least 30,000 refugees from North
Korea, and there may be as many as 100,000. No one knows
exactly, because these refugees have been forsaken by the
UNHCR; they are not internationally recognized like the
people fleeing Afghanistan or Kosovo. The only available
numbers are estimates by the NGOs on the scene.
Our own interviews reveal that the defectors fully
qualify as refugees because, if they should be repatriated,
they are almost certain to meet with reprisals.
We fully understand that, although our activities are
in alignment with the international Convention on the Status
of Refugees, our rescue operations contravene the stance of
the Chinese government, and this attracts punishment under
Chinese municipal law. In fact, our network has received
such punishment a number of times. This year alone, we have
been assessed fines totaling 50,000RMB. Paying these fines
is cutting into our rescue funds. Meanwhile, the crackdown
is growing more severe.
The shelters where we have been taking care of the
North Korean refugees are being increasingly exposed under a
policy that encourages citizens to turn information over to
the security authorities. The Longjin Security Office in Jilin
Prov., for instance, ordered each member to find and arrest at
least two defectors from North Korea in January.
We cannot simply turn our faces away while knowing that
the North Korean defectors are crying out for our help; every
one of them will be severely punished if sent back to North
If our activists can help even one person, they will
have no regrets, though they may be arrested and have their
heads shaved as criminals. Even if our activists meet the
persecution of inhumane treatment and become branded as
criminals, we believe that there is no shame in this.
We do not know of any nations or international
organizations currently extending help to these people in
China. The fact is, the NGOs believe we must help those
people, and we continue our mutual cooperation under flexible
linkage and arrangements. Our respective groups are making
all possible efforts to help the maximum number of people.
We understand that the Chinese government deems it
important to guard their security, from a geopolitical
standpoint. If that government ever hopes to play a role as a
major nation, however, and win the respect of the world, it
must implement humane measures and show that it respects
human rights. We believe that in this way, the Chinese
government will be putting itself more in step with
If, however, the Chinese government continues in its
present policy and fails to recognize the image it is
projecting, it runs the risk of being seen by the
international community as no better than North Korea, with
which China is associating itself.
How do you explain the recent series of asylum bids using foreign
diplomatic missions in China? Why is this happening now? Is this indication
of worsening conditions in North Korea? Is this indication of the worsening
conditions in the livesof North Korean refugees hiding in China? Do you
expect more such asylum attempts taking place given the coming World Cup
co-hosted by South Korea?
The recent scenes of defectors dashing into foreign
diplomatic compounds demonstrates how severe the crackdown in
China is, as the defectors hiding in China are quickly being
shut out of places where they can survive. Even when
defectors are repatriated to North Korea, they try to escape
again, since they can find no way to survive other than re-
entering China. Awaiting them in North Korea is punishment
for treason under Criminal Code No. 47 as described treason.
They can find no way to live either in North Korea or in China.
They have no choice, therefore, but to escape to a third country
Incidents of North Korean defectors running into
foreign diplomatic compounds will continue because there is
no place left for them to survive.
Do you expect that there will be North Korean refugees who will request
asylum in the United States, not South Korea? How true is the report that
those who made the asylum bids in Shenyang through the consular mssions of
the United States and Japan actually wish to seek asylum in the United
States? If true, why choose the United States over South Korea?
It is likely that some defectors may seek to settle in
the United States. In Los Angeles, the Korean community is
600,000 strong. Many soldiers taken prisoners by South Korean
Army during the Korean War in the 1950s moved to
the United States, and they probably have relatives in
North Korea. It is highly likely, therefore, that the
defectors will express a desire to move to the United States,
expecting help from their relatives.
The defectors who recently attempted to enter the
Japanese consulate in Shenyang carried letters written in
English asking the US for asylum. According to one South
Korean NGO involved in this case, the defectors explained
that they fear murder or injury at the hands of North Korea
agents who operate covertly in South Korea.
Although the defectors probably know little about the
US, they may believe that they will be safer there than in
South Korea, and that they may be protected by their
relatives living in the US.
How long have you been involved in helping North Korean refugees, and
personally, why did you decide to get involved in this work? How long has
the Life Fund for North Korean refugees been helping the North Korean
refugees? What are the main difficulties of your organization, in China or
even in North Korea itself?
The NGO, Life Funds for North Korean Refugees
(LFNKR) was established in September 1998.
One activist member of LFNKR has been engaged in the
rescue activities for ten years, the longest term of service,
while most other activists average about four years.
In the 1960s, a propaganda campaign promised that
"North Korea is an earthly paradise," and 100,000 Korean
residents in Japan along with many Japanese spouses went over
to North Korea. Many refugees were among those 100,000. These
people are now fleeing to China, with the aim of returning to
Japan or reaching South Korea. Our role is to give those
Our greatest challenge is the severe lack of funds in
comparison with the seriousness of the issue and the
magnitude of our task. As we strive to continue our
activities in China, we are constantly faced with the
tragedies caused by refugee hunting and forced repatriation
by the Chinese Security authorities.
However, our food supply network, which we developed in
North Korea, is still operating effectively.
What are your hopes and dreams for North Korean refugees? Do you expect
that the mounting refugee problem and the campaign for human rights will add
to pressures that will help bring about changes within North Korea itself?
I hope that the issue of North Korean Refugees will
help create greater awareness of the current situation, so that
the North Korean refugees may receive international recognition.
Without the light of international publicity, no one
will realize that the aid being provided by the United
Nations, EU, and other Western countries is helping the
ruling class, while the common people in North Korea are
being tortured. Without this widespread awareness, the
tragedy of the defectors from North Korea will never end. We
believe that a truly international campaign is the only way
to bring about drastic changes in the policies of North Korea
Since the root of the issue is the military
dictatorship of Kim Jong-il of North Korea, it is obvious
that, unless it is replaced with a better political rule, no
fundamental solution will ever be achieved. This is all the
more reason to stress the importance of the campaign.
We must not forget, however, aid unaccompanied by
monitoring will only prolong the life of the present
government, which continues its oppression of humanity and
human rights. We again direct your attention to this issue.