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Redoubling Crackdowns on Fleeing North Koreans

China appears to be intensifying its crackdowns on North Korean escapees attempting to transit through China to seek protection, Human Rights Watch said today. According to activists and North Koreans living South Korea who are in contact with people in China and North Korea, China has detained at least 41 North Korean refugees, and an undetermined number of their guides, in the past two months.

Security has been constantly increasing over the past five years in areas on both sides of the border between North Korea and China, with increased numbers of border guards and more barbed wire fencing. China has also expanded CCTV surveillance on the border and increased checkpoints on roads leading away from the border. The North Korean government systematically detains and punishes all those caught trying to leave the country without permission, as well as those apprehended and forcibly returned by China. Leaving the country illegally is a crime and those who are apprehended can be punished by imprisonment in long term prison camps for serious crimes (kyohwaso) or prison camps for political offenses (kwanliso), both of which have long been documented to be facilities where torture, starvation, and inadequate medical care are endemic.

“China has known for years that North Korea security officials use torture as a matter of longstanding state policy and practice, and imprison people who leave the country without permission,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “By returning them to a place of torture and persecution, China is clearly violating international law and its obligations as a nation that has ratified the UN Refugee Convention.”

Human Rights Watch documented 41 North Koreans detained by China in July and August 2017 in different locations including in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture (near to the Lao-China border) in Yunnan province and near the North Korea-China border around Changbai.

Total numbers of fleeing North Koreans, as well as those apprehended, are almost impossible to authoritatively determine, but the number of known recent detentions is a steep increase from the approximately 51 persons caught by China that Human Rights Watch documented over the course of a year, between July 2016 and June 2017. These 92 known cases since July 2016 include a baby born in detention, 11 children, and 4 older women in frail health. Human Rights Watch calls on both China and North Korea to provide information about the total number of North Koreans apprehended in China, the number forcibly returned by China to North Korea, and their present whereabouts and conditions.

Based on accounts from family members and activists in South Korea, Human Rights Watch estimates that China has already forcibly returned at least 37 North Koreans since July 2016. Some of the North Koreans forcibly returned in June and July 2017 had been held in the Tumen immigration detention facility in a group of other unknown North Korean detainees who were sent back, according to family members and activists.

Immediate action needs to be taken to prevent the other 55 North Koreans that Human Rights Watch has concerns are in Chinese detention from joining them.

China routinely labels North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” rather than accepting them as refugees. China is a state party to the UN Refugee Convention but Beijing continues to defy its obligations under international human rights law to provide refugees protection and safety, and allow UNHCR access to North Korean asylum seekers.

Departing without official permission is considered a serious crime in North Korea, frequently punished by imprisonment, forced labor, and physical abuse. In the most severe cases, it can be punished by death. Since the State Security Agency (bowibu) and the Ministry of People’s Security (police) tortures and severely punishes all North Koreans in China who left North Korea without permission, Human Rights Watch regards those persons as refugees sur place in need of urgent international protection. Human Rights Watch also regards their forcible return as a violation of the principle of refoulement, the bar on returning refugees to the risk of being persecuted and the return of anyone to the threat of being tortured.

North Koreans forcibly returned by China regularly endure torture while being interrogated about their activities abroad. North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security enforces a decree that classifies defection as a crime of “treachery against the nation.” Punishments are harsh, and can include a death sentence. Those that the state decides to imprison disappear into North Korea’s horrific political prison camp system (kwanliso), where prisoners face torture, sexual violence, forced labor, and other inhuman treatment, or to forced labor camps where they will spend years working in dangerous conditions and harsh weather.

It appears that China is not only apprehending and returning more North Koreans, but is also cracking down on the networks that facilitate their escape. One Christian missionary explained to Human Rights Watch that his large rescue network’s capacity had fallen by approximately 80 percent of what it was before June 2017 because of China’s detention of his network’s members and guides. Another activist involved with a smaller, more discrete network estimated that his ability to transport North Koreans had dropped 20 percent because members of his network became more reluctant to take risks by transporting unfamiliar persons. Three activists helping North Koreans who visited the China-North Korea border along the Tumen river in August told Human Rights Watch it had become virtually impossible to get close enough to even see the river because of increased security patrols and other activities, in contrast to the summer of 2016 when they had been able to access it without problems.

“Intercepting North Koreans on the move retards international efforts to document ongoing human rights violations in North Korea by preventing people from speaking to the outside world about conditions in the country,” said Robertson. “China’s help is important for North Korean leader Kim-Jong Un’s efforts to suppress new accounts of his systemic and pervasive rights crimes against his countrymen.”

North Korea continues to strengthen its efforts to prevent its citizens from escaping the country. Two missionaries involved in networks assisting fleeing North Koreans explained to Human Rights Watch that since the beginning of 2017, they were aware of at least three instances in which Chinese authorities detained North Koreans on the road after receiving an anonymous tip that the group was involved with transporting narcotics. The source of these tips to Chinese police is unclear and cannot be confirmed, but many activists told Human Rights Watch that they suspect North Korean government agents were the ones providing those tip-offs about groups of North Koreans on the road.

A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea found that those fleeing the country are targeted as part of a “systematic and widespread attack against populations considered to pose a threat to the political system and leadership of the DPRK” as they threaten the government’s ability “to isolate the population from contact with the outside world.” It also found that crimes against humanity, including torture, execution, enslavement, and sexual violence, are committed against prisoners and people forcibly returned to North Korea from China. The Commission also criticized China for failing to live up to its obligations as a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

“China should be principled or practical by either by providing North Korean refugees asylum or allowing them to safely pass through Chinese territory without fear of arrest and forced repatriation as they seek protection elsewhere,” said Robertson. “These forced returns to North Korea must stop. It’s time for governments around the world to pressure China to do the right thing for North Korean refugees.”


(c) 2017 Human Rights Watch

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