Speech by Kim Sang Hun
the Issue of Legal Status of NK Refugees in China
1. International Issue
It is our firm belief that the question of refugees
is an international issue and therefore should be governed by
relevant international laws (i.e., the 1951 Convention Relating
to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol thereto of 1967) and
not to be determined by any national law or any political or economic
Very regrettably, the Chinese Government is
applying national law to an international issue that should be
governed by customary international law. Accordingly, if the Chinese
Government punishes the defectors under its national law, it must
first explain why the defectors are not eligible for refugee status
under customary international law. Arresting defectors without
this explanation and without granting them the benefit of fair
and efficient asylum procedures makes the Chinese government’s
decision absolutely arbitrary and the government of China defiant
of human rights principles and international justice. In the name
of fundamental human rights and humanity, the international community
has the right to know that the Chinese Government first publicly
articulate why the defectors in question have not been found eligible
for refugee status.
Defiance of Humanitarianism by China
Over the years, human rights NGOs, international
organizations and foreign governments have made a number of appeals
and asked questions to the government of China on the issue of
North Korean defectors in China.
The Chinese government has ignored these appeals,
not bothered even to respond and continued to forcibly return
North Korean refugees to their most atrocious persecution in North
Korea. This is unquestionably a clear case of blunt defiance of
humanitarianism and of the international community by the Chinese
As disturbing as such diplomatic insults may be,
more grave by far is the Chinese Government’s continued
callousness in systematically returning the refugees to North
Korea and to a fate of detention, intimidation and even summary
This is clearly a case of Chinese arrogance and
defiance of the international community’s accepted rule
of law and of the principles of humanitarianism - not a simple
case of a difference of opinion. The question today is “How
long will the international community tolerate such defiance?”
The international community’s continued turning of a blind
eye to China’s contempt for humanitarianism today can only
serve to incubate the tomorrow’s aspiring Hitlers, Stalins
and Kim Jong-ils.
Lessons to Be Learned
The North Korean defectors who gain entrance
to foreign embassies are permitted to leave China. Foreigners
are strong. The same defectors are arrested and treated like beasts
if found on the streets. North Korean defectors are weak by themselves.
The lesson to be learned here is that China
responds only to a strong show of force and China is submissive
to the stronger, but shows no mercy to the weaker. The Chinese
view the UNHCR, humanitarian NGO’s, and the South Korean
government as being “weaker,” when they are diplomatic
and appeal for humanitarian consideration. This is why we must
stop making appeals to the Chinese government for humanitarian
Main Actions Urged
In view of the above, it must be urged that
appeals for humanitarian considerations or quiet diplomatic approaches
be discontinued in favor of protest in the strongest possible
terms and actions in dealing with the Chinese government. The
observation is supported by the modern Chinese short story, “The
True Story of Ah Q” by Lu Hsun (1881-1936), which has been
recognized by both the Chinese themselves and by foreigners as
being “an excellent description of Chinese national characteristics.”
of China must be strongly condemned for and confronted
with its defiance of the 1951 Geneva convention at all levels
and opportunities. As a first step, the government of China must
be urged, not appealed, to answer the attached questions, which
have been put forward to the government of China for years and
which the Chinese government has bluntly ignored.
proposed that at the end of this conference the attached
questions are put forward to the Chinese government for answer
in the name of the Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (LFNKR)
and the participants of this conference today. Repeated reminders
will be made through a short announcements in the leading international
news media making reference to the unanswered questions to be
found in the LFNKR web site. The announcement to appear in the
leading international newspapers regularly, for example, may read
19 July 2004, the Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (LFNKR)
and the participants of the Tokyo Conference on 18 July, 2004,
have asked the Chinese government questions on the issues of
the legal status of North Korean defectors in China and China’s
arbitrary detentions of humanitarian aid workers. As of this
date we have received no response. (The questions to be found
This is our reminder to the Chinese government.”
It is important to attract greater attention
and support from the international community on this issue of
Chinese arrogance and defiance of rule of law. Crucial information
will have to be collected and documented for this purpose. Attached
is an example. All participants are urged to make greater efforts
to collect testimonies and evidence of North Korean defectors
who are executed in North Korea after forcibly returned to North
Korea by the Chinese authorities.
We demand that the Chinese Government explain and
clarify the following questions that are crucially relevant to
its international obligations:
Is the status of North Korean defectors in China subject
to international law or national law?
It is our firm belief that the question of refugee status is
an international issue and therefore should be governed by relevant
international laws (i.e., the 1951 Convention Relating to the
Status of Refugees and the Protocol thereto of 1967) and not to
be determined by Chinese national law or any political or economic
Furthermore, your government has accepted that “an international
human rights agreement…is binding under Chinese law and
China must honour the corresponding obligations…In the event
of discrepancies between domestic law and an international human
rights agreement…the international agreement will take precedence…”
(Report of China – HRI/CORE/1/Add.21/Rev.2, 11 June 2001).
Please explain on what basis the defectors are denied
the right even to substantiate their claims as refugees.
Very regrettably, the Chinese Government is applying national
law to an international issue that should be governed by customary
international law. Accordingly, if the Chinese Government punishes
the defectors under its national law, it must first explain why
the defectors are not eligible for refugee status under customary
international law. Arresting defectors without this explanation
and without granting them the benefit of fair and efficient asylum
procedures makes the Chinese government’s decision appear
highly arbitrary, and defiant of human rights principles and international
justice. In the name of fundamental human rights and humanity,
the international community has the right to know that the Chinese
Government first publicly articulate why the defectors in question
have not been found eligible for refugee status.
Can the Chinese Government justifiably charge the defectors
with ‘Illegal Entry?
Without fair and efficient asylum procedures, the Chinese authorities
arbitrarily charge all the defectors with “illegal entry”
for their presence in China. It must be recognized that this is
in violation of the 1951 Convention, Article 31, which prohibits
the Contracting States from imposing “…penalties,
on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees…”
Illegal entry, therefore, does not preclude defectors from being
the refugees they claim to be. All individuals who commit desperate
acts, such as illegal entry, should be granted the opportunity
to substantiate their claims in accordance with the international
refugee laws that were established to protect them. (Technically,
the defectors in question are “illegal border crossers”
at the very outset. In essence, no concept of ‘refugee’
could exist anywhere in the world and no refugee laws could be
in place if defectors were unconditionally arrested solely based
on their illegal entry or presence, as it is in China.)
How does the Chinese Government justify punishing aid
workers who help “Illegal Immigrants” when they act
on humanitarian grounds?
All governments have the sovereign right to deal with illegal
immigrants. However, the Chinese Government punishes not only
those it labels ‘illegal immigrants,” but also anyone
helping them based on humanitarian grounds. Such ill-advised actions
are inconsistent with the prevailing norm of behavior consistent
with international community membership. By so doing, isn’t
the Chinese Government forcing innocent citizens and international
aid-workers to deny fundamental human rights to people in distress?
Isn’t the Chinese interpretation of humanity at odds with
the rest of the world?
Are the defectors economic migrants or refugees?
Based on the abundance of information documented and available
to us, none of the North Korean defectors was in China with the
intent to pursue business or seek gainful employment. A migrant
enjoys the protection of his or her home government; a North Korean
defector does not.
Moreover, many defectors have been arrested while attempting
to leave China for a third country. Thus, if the defectors are
indeed economic migrants pursuing business and/or seeking gainful
employment in China, why then would they attempt to leave China
at the first opportunity for a third country that provides far
less economic opportunity than China (e.g., Mongolia, Myanmar,
Laos or Vietnam)? Any attempts to leave China undermines the Chinese
Government’s “economic migrants” allegation
and clearly demonstrates the real purpose seeking freedom.
One case in point: On January 18, 2003 48 North Koreans, including
a group of children, were about to leave China by sea and seek
asylum either in South Korea or Japan. They were arrested, however,
by the Chinese security services in Yantai City, Shandong Province.
If they were indeed economic migrants, why would they attempt
to leave China in the first place?
Are Chinese Law Not the Same for Everyone?
North Korean defectors are given humanitarian considerations
and are allowed to leave China by the Chinese Government if they
were in the compound of any foreign embassies in China. The same
North Koreans are brutally treated and returned to North Korea
against their will if they were found outside foreign embassies.
What kind of law enforcement is this?
South Korean humanitarian aid workers who have been arbitrarily
detained without court verdict for an extended period, including
those who have been in detention over a year without court verdicts
for the exactly same charges for which it is seven days or 3 weeks
for the Japanese aid workers. Are the law of China different by
My name is Shin Jong-ae. I was born in Japan on 3 March 1945.
In September 1961, as a 16-year-old orphan heavily affected by
North Korean propaganda, I joined a group of ethnic Koreans who
were going to North Korea.
I attended Nurse College for 3 years after my arrival in North
Korea. I had been a nurse at the city hospital in Nampo for 3
years when I married a railway factory worker, with whom I later
had 2 boys and a girl.
My husband died in January 1999. With him, as the bread earner,
gone, I needed help from my sister in Japan.
Therefore, I defected to China in August 1999 to meet my sister,
who had flown in from Japan. After 3 months in China, I sneaked
back to North Korea, but was arrested by North Korean authorities.
Consequently, for the “crime” of defecting to China,
I was forced to serve a total of 17 months in detention: 5 months
of tough interrogations at the State Security Agency (SSA) and
12 months at the Yodok Detention Camp.
At the SSA detention camp it was common practice for guards to
push dirty floor rags into the mouths of prisoners, and to kick
and beat prisoners with bars. At Yodok, all the prisoners were
badly malnourished. When I was released in April 2001, I could
not walk and my sons had to carry me home on their shoulders from
the police station.
Disillusioned by the North Korean system of oppressing innocent
people like myself, I defected to China for the second time in
August 2001, but was immediately arrested in China. This time,
I was soon released in North Korea after bribing a North Korean
On 10 October 2001, about 2 months after my release, I defected
to China for the 3rd time. After a week or so in China, I was
again arrested and sent back to North Korea. I spent about 40
days this time in various detention camps.
On 17 November 2001, I defected to China for the 4th time and,
this time, along with my daughter, her husband and their one-year
old girl, safely arrived in South Korea via Vietnam and Cambodia
on 13 October 2002.
My Children Under Severe Interrogations for Defection
from North Korea
My first son was a doctor and second son a clerk at a tuberculosis
hospital in North Korea. On 29 March, 2003, they, along with my
second son’s wife and two boys, aged 7- and 2-years old,
and my 35-year old niece defected to China. Alas, they were among
the seven North Korean defectors who were arrested in Shanghai
by Chinese authorities on 7 August 2003 while attempting to enter
the Japanese school in an effort to seek freedom in South Korea.
This incident received full coverage by the world news media at
Incredibly, the very next day after their arrest, my son’s
wife and two children were repatriated to North Korea via Dandong,
China. My two sons and my niece were repatriated to North Korea
via Dandong on 28 September 2003, almost two months later. The
Chinese Government denied their refugee status, calling them illegal
economic migrants. But in North Korea they were considered political
prisoners and, as such, were sent to the Pohang District SSA in
Chongjin on 15 October 2003. Around the end of January 2004, they
were sent to the North Hamkyong Provincial SSA as serious political
prisoners, where they remain — assuming they have survived
the notorious ordeal to this date and not yet been sent to one
of the secret concentration camps.
I want to condemn the Chinese authorities for repatriating North
Korean defectors to certain and severe persecution in North Korea
under the pretext that North Korean defectors are economic migrants.
Would China still call my children economic migrants? I also want
to challenge the North Korean regime for their treatment of North
Korean defectors from China as political prisoners. Finally, I
wish to appeal to the international community for help confronting
the North Korean regime and ask them to explain why my children
are still detained.
Please help my children! God save my children!