Rumors – China May Recognize Some NK Refugees

Expectations High, but Will Plan Be Implemented?

Rumors filtering out of China recently suggest that the Chinese government may begin granting refugee status to some North Korean defectors. The Chinese government has so far stuck to its official position that there are no North Korean refugees in China, that North Korean defectors have entered China illegally, and that their stay in China is illegal.

North Koreans caught in China have been arrested, detained, and forcibly returned to North Korea, drawing the criticism of the international community and sympathy for the defectors. Despite this, China claims that NGOs exist solely to destroy the international community’s faith in China, and have clamped down on NGOs as a result.

The Chinese government knows, however, that if it sends North Korean defectors back to their own country, they will face harsh punishment, or death, due to the arbitrary application of Article 47 of North Korea’s criminal code.

China’s disregard of the Refugee Convention — which it has signed — is the basis of the international community’s criticism, and it shows no signs of abating. It may be difficult to argue that the international community’s criticism has led to the Chinese government recognizing North Korean defectors as refugees, but we can see signs of a gradual shift in some of the recent dialogue coming out of China.

A Rethinking of Policy on North Korean Defectors?

At an international symposium on North Korean human rights held by the Chinese National Human Rights Commission in October 2008, Professor Kim Gan Il, Dean of the Political Science Department at Yanbian University, gave a lecture entitled “Chinese Policy on the Korean Peninsula and the North Korean Defector Issue.” In this lecture Professor Kim stated, “It is clear that there are a number of refugees among those defecting from North Korea.”

According to the South Korean online newspaper Daily NK, Professor Kim explained the Chinese government’s position this way: 

“Recently, we have seen a certain amount of change in China’s policy concerning North Korean defectors. The Chinese government has been pursuing improvements in the human rights situation. They are wary of a major human rights problem arising out of the North Korean defector issue… They have been deeply distressed by the storm of criticism coming from the international community.”

Elaborating further, Kim said, somewhat optimistically, “Judging from these changes, it is possible that the Chinese government’s policy on North Korean defectors will change.”

Conditions for Residency Status

The Chinese Human Rights Research Committee, which has strong ties with the government, unveiled its plan in a meeting of a national organization of which the deputy chairman of the Chinese National Convention is also a member. The plan, entitled “North Koreans in China: Plan for the Resolution of the Korean Issue,” stated that the following people would be granted legal resident status:

  • North Korean women who have been married to a Chinese man for more than three years, who have a child, and who have been living in a law-abiding manner, North Korean women who live with relatives in China, who could not support themselves if repatriated, and who express a strong desire to remain in China.
  • A North Korean who once was a Chinese citizen1, or whose parents were Chinese citizens2, who has returned to China to live.

Perhaps we can expect to see a policy based on these principles in the not-too-distant future; but there are also many problems that must be resolved before such a plan is put into place.  Of crucial importance is the adoption of a policy to freeze all repatriations of North Korean defectors.

Next, a deadline must be fixed to enact a policy based on the Refugee Convention that respects basic human rights and humanitarian principles. If these things are not done, North Korean defectors and the NGOs that help them will simply have to continue looking over their shoulder at every turn.

Report submitted by Kato Hiroshi

1  Ethnic Korean Chinese who were members of the Korean People’s Army or the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, who remained in North Korea after the Korean War, or who were fleeing the oppression of the Cultural Revolution in China and settled in North Korea.
2  Same as above.