Recommendations for the Obama Administration

When the president of one of most influential American NGOs having strong ties with the US government visited Japan in early March, LFNKR directors met with him to discuss the North Korean refugees.

We submitted the following recommendations on the approach to China, and requested that he strongly urge the Obama Administration to adopt the recommendations in establishing its approach to China.



Re: China’s position with respect to North Korean refugees
Prepared by: Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (NPO) (Tokyo, Japan)
(Recipient of Tokyo Bar Association’s Human Rights Prize 2008)

March 3, 2009

Life Funds for North Korean Refugees is a non-partisan Tokyo-based non-profit organization whose primary focus is the protection of, and advocacy for, the human rights of refugees from North Korea. We also work closely with Japanese NGOs supporting the families of Japanese citizens abducted to North Korea, as well as numerous human rights and refugee NGOs overseas.

We welcome the prospect of progress on North Korean issues that the new U.S. administration brings, and we would like to offer our perspective on the role of China in the fate of North Korean refugees, and opportunities for constructive change. We would encourage the Obama administration to consider these points carefully when meeting with their Chinese counterparts.


Those who flee North Korea due to starvation and/or oppression must first cross into China, where some remain and others make their way to South Korea, the United States, Japan, and other countries. China’s role is thus central to the fate of these refugees and their families.

Forcible Repatriation

The Chinese authorities regularly seek out North Koreans in hiding in China and forcibly repatriate them to North Korea. Refugees returned to North Korea in this way, in contravention of the principle of non-refoulement, are subject to imprisonment in labor camps, punishment of family members, and/or execution.

Human Trafficking in China

Refugees from North Korea are in an extremely vulnerable position due to the danger of repatriation, and are frequently preyed on by human traffickers once they arrive in China. Their vulnerability is exacerbated by the imbalance in the sex ratio in China, which increases the demand for “brides” among local men, and by their general lack of legal status in China due to the Chinese government’s unwillingness to recognize them as bona fide refugees.

Thus, most women are forced into either involuntary sex work or “marriage” with ethnic Chinese or Korean Chinese men. To the extent that the women are willing to be sold into such “marriages”, it is because of their lack of legal status in China and the harsh punishments they face if forcibly repatriated.

involuntary sex work

Under Chinese law, all children in China are entitled, regardless of their ethnicity or citizenship, to nine years of free and compulsory education. However, the Chinese government for the most part insists that children present their family register (hukou) as a pre-requisite to school enrolment. For the children of North Korean mothers, whether North Korea-born or born in China of Chinese fathers, this means a choice between registering and risking their mothers being forcibly returned to North Korea, and not attending school at all.


We respectfully encourage the United States to include the following points in their discussions with their Chinese counterparts. These points are made bearing in mind Chinese sovereignty and the practical advantages to the Chinese central and local authorities.

1. Stop the forcible repatriation of refugees from North Korea

  • China, as a major player in the international community and a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, has a responsibility not to force migrants from North Korea to return to a country where they face certain and brutal punishment.
  • Children of North Korean mothers who have been forcibly repatriated often find themselves without any parental care whatsoever, as their Chinese fathers are often unable to support them. As a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, China would no doubt like to avoid this possibility.

2. Grant temporary legal resident status to North Korean defectors

  • Geographical realities mean that China is the first point of entry for North Korean migrants, even though many merely transit through China on their way to their final destination countries. Legal status would facilitate the safe and expeditious exit of such North Korean migrants.
  • The imbalance in the sex ratio in China means that most men who take North Korean women as partners are those who were not able to marry by normal means; the majority are physically and/or mentally handicapped and many are unable to work. Temporary legal resident status would allow North Korean women to work outside the home without fear of repatriation, and vastly improve the economic situation of their Chinese partners and their families.

3. Allow all children, regardless of nationality, to attend school without presenting the family register (hukou)

  • This is in accordance with Articles 4 and 5 of the Compulsory Education Law of the People’s Republic of China.
  • A generation of educated children is much more likely to be economically stable and less likely to contribute to social unrest or instability than uneducated, economically and socially disadvantaged children

4. Facilitate the meeting of North Korean migrants with UNHCR officials

  • North Korean migrants who wish to be recognized as refugees by the UNHCR and then settle in another country are simply transiting China. It is in China’s interests to facilitate this process and ensure the safety of such migrants while they are in transit to UNHCR offices.
  • Until these migrants reach the UNHCR’s offices, they remain in danger from North Korean agents and security forces working inside China. We respectfully suggest that China protect its sovereignty by refusing North Korean security forces permission to operate on Chinese soil.

5. Treat involuntary sex workers as victims and not criminals

  • Involuntary sex workers are victims of human trafficking and should not be treated as criminals. We respectfully ask that China facilitate the meeting of such North Korean migrants with UNHCR officials and support their exit to a safe destination country.

The situation on the Korean peninsula is complex and will take much time and effort to resolve. However, the above are practical solutions to real problems. Their implementation is fully in line with respect for Chinese sovereignty, and has concrete advantages for the Chinese government, at both the central and relevant local levels. We encourage the United States government to use every opportunity to discuss and promote these approaches to the Chinese government.

We look forward to seeing real progress on these and other issues during the Obama administration’s tenure.

Kato Hiroshi, Executive Director
Life Funds for North Korean Refugees

A-101, 2-2-8 Nishikata, Bunkyo-ku
Tokyo  113-0024  Japan
Tel./Fax  +81-3-3815-8127