The report documents the trafficking of North Korean "wives" for Chinese men, and the torture and humiliation returnees suffer at the hands of North Korean officials. Based on interviews with North Korean refugees now in Seoul, humanitarian activists, academics and government officials in various countries, the report paints a grim picture of the sub-human conditions and abuses returnees are subject to in forced labor colonies and prison camps in North Korea.
"North Korea bears the main responsibility for this exodus of refugees, who are fleeing hunger and human rights abuses at home," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director for Asia at Human Rights Watch. "But the Chinese government has important responsibilities, too. Forcibly returning asylum seekers is a blatant violation of international law."
Since 1982, China has been a party to the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, which obligate signatories not to forcibly return asylum seekers who face persecution at home. North Koreans who are forced to return may receive prolonged prison terms or even the death penalty if their "crime" of leaving is interpreted as treason.
Until North Korea changes its policy of punishing returnees and opens itself to international monitoring, all asylum-seekers from North Korea should be presumed entitled to protection from forced return, even if their motivation for leaving has not been established, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch urged the international community to pressure North Korea to comply with its human rights obligations and called for adoption of a resolution on North Korea at next year's session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Human Rights Watch also called on China to allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) immediate access to the border region to interview asylum-seekers.
The exodus of North Koreans to China reached a height in the late 1990's as a result of the food crisis, but continues today as the result of extreme poverty and repression. Escape routes became well established through bribery and word of mouth. Thousands of North Koreans are now hiding in China, mainly in the province of Jilin along the border region with North Korea; the exact number is impossible to determine.
The international community largely ignored this outpouring until North Koreans began breaking into diplomatic compounds in Beijing and elsewhere to seek asylum earlier this year. From March-September 2002, a total of 121 North Koreans eventually managed to leave China for South Korea. The Chinese authorities have responded by tightening security around diplomatic compounds, demanding that embassies turn over North Koreans, and tightening security measures at the border.
Governments involved in human rights dialogues with Beijing, such as the European Union, Japan, the United States and Canada, should devote urgent attention to the plight of North Korean asylum seekers. They should press China to immediately begin a high level dialogue with the UNHCR on establishment of refugee screening. As an interim step, Beijing should grant all North Koreans an indefinite humanitarian status that would protect them from harassment and threats of extortion or forcible repatriation to North Korea.
"The world can no longer turn a blind eye to asylum seekers from North Korea," said Jendrzejczyk. "A coordinated effort is needed to protect their rights."
Testimonies from The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the People's Republic of China
Whenever I think of that moment, I sweat. What would have happened if I were caught at that moment? [Because of my family background] the [North Korean] National Security Agency would regard me as a spy or a traitor, and might kill me by gunshot, or imprison me for life without any court procedure. I might have been sent to an administrative labor camp, or a secret mine, or perhaps my body would be used as an object for chemical experimentation. Anyhow, I would have wound up like a dead body, though I might be breathing.
-Survivor of North Korean labor camp
When a North Korean woman crosses the Tumen River and knocks on the door of a Korean-Chinese house asking for food, she may be helped. After a few days pass, some of her "protectors" may advise her to marry. After getting her to agree, they will be paid 2000 or 3000 renminbi [U.S.$240 to U.S.$360] by the husband's family….North Korean women are trafficked first to Korean-Chinese, and then subsequently to Chinese. They are slaves; sexual toys.
-Humanitarian worker who had assisted North Korean refugees in China from 1997 to 2001
During my stay there, 1,200 people were sent to the facility and I saw only seven people who left without physical injury or harm. Many people died because of an epidemic, and many others were shot to death. The facility generally released people when they believed that the person would no longer survive. Many of the detainees suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis or other diseases. There were about three hundred people in the camp, with a group of thirty in each room. About one hundred people were sent each month, and about ten people were dead every day. If someone didn't receive one meal per day, he would be so weak from starvation that he could not move properly. Since there were no coffins, they put the bodies on a plank and carried them to a hill and buried them.
-A former border guard held in a North Korean detention camp