UPDATE: Two Aid Workers Tried, Convicted

Is China Really a Part of the International Community?

On Dec. 11, 2003 a Chinese court utterly ignored pleas from the International community and its own country’s pledge to uphold the Convention on Refugees. That court sentenced aid worker Choi Yong-hun to 5 years in prison. At the same time, photojournalist Deok Jae-hyun received a sentence of 2 years in a Chinese prison. The crime of these two men? Helping their fellow man. Read the background details below.

Press Conference, February 13, 2003

Press Conference, February 13, 2003

Translated from Japanese Press Statement
Released February 13, 2003

China should join the international community to resolve the issue together

China, despite repeated requests from other governments and human rights and other international organizations, continues to arrest and detain North Korean defectors as well as the humanitarian aid workers trying to assist them.

China shows no signs of stopping. Instead, it has intensified the crackdown, arresting and repatriating North Korean refugees, who face severe punishment for treason, up to and including the death penalty, under the laws of North Korea, when handed over to their own country.

The North Korean people who cross the border to escape from starvation are refugees. There is no question of this. 8China, a signatory nation to the Convention Relating to Refugees, is obliged – at a minimum – to allow the UNHCR access to those people to interview them.

China can not regard the North Korean refugees as a problem involving exclusively China and North Korea. Instead, China must see it as a crucial human rights issue that has to be addressed by the international community, including not only its neighboring countries but also Japan, the United States and Europe. The issue should be resolved within an international framework.

With the growing interest of international society in the human rights of North Korean refugees, and with the 2008 Olympics coming to Beijing, the international community is watching China, judging if it really qualifies as a member of international society.

We of the NGO, Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, sent the following questions to China in September of last year. On one occasion, it was sent by registered mail, and on another it went through the UNHCR Tokyo Office. We sent the same questions each time the opportunity arose, including at all joint press conferences.

We regret to report, however, that as of this date, no response has been forthcoming to any of the questions. Today, again, we ask China to answer the following questions.

Kenkichi Nakadaira
Representative, Life Funds for North Korean Refugees


Our Questions

We demand that the government of China 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. 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 considerations.

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 to even substantiate their claims as refugees.

Very regrettably, the Chinese Government is applying national law to an international issue that is to be governed by customary international law. Accordingly, if the Chinese Government should punish the defectors under the 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 request the Chinese Government to 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 charge all the defectors with “illegal entry” for their presence in China. It must be indicated 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 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 are unconditionally arrested solely based on their illegal entry or presence, as 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? Is the Chinese interpretation of humanity at odds with the rest of the world?

Are the defectors economic migrants and, therefore, not refugees?

On the basis of abundance of information documented and available to us, we believe that 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.

Ironically, and to further illustrate this point at issue, many defectors have been arrested while attempting to leave China for a third country. We are compelled to raise the question: If the defectors are economic migrants, pursuing business and/or seeking gainful employment in China, why then would they attempt to leave China at the first opportunity, bound for a third country wherein lies far less economic opportunity than China (e.g. Mongolia, Myanmar, Laos)? Their continuing attempts to leave China betray the Chinese Government’s allegation of their motives as “economic migrant” and clearly manifests their purpose to seek freedom.

One very recent case in point: On January 18, 48 North Koreans, including children, who were about to leave China by sea and seek asylum either in South Korea or Japan, were arrested by the Chinese security services in Yantai City, Shandong Province. If they were indeed economic migrants, why would they attempt to leave China at the very first opportunity?


Background Information
on the 58 Arrested Refugees

Appeal Proceedings to be Closed Session
Letter from Aid Worker’s Daughter

Newsman, Aidworkers Face 2nd Session May 22
Aid Worker Trial Hardly Noticed by Press
Our Letter to China Justice Ministry
Aid Workers May Face Prison
The Jan. 21 Press Conference
China Must Protect Asylum Seekers
List of Refugees
Statement by Sang Hun Kim
Statement by MSF
Chronology of Events
Boat People Update – March 28
Open Letter to China’s Hu Jintao

IPCNKR Petitions UNHCR – July 28