(Seoul) - The International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), consisting over 40 prominent human rights organizations and activists, today condemned the recent expulsion and forced repatriation of at least 41 North Korean refugees by the People’s Republic of China.

Reports indicate that Chinese police arrested the 41 people, including families with young children, in and around Shenyang, Liaoning province in early February. The refugees were held for almost a month in a Chinese detention facility near Tumen before being handed over to DPRK NationalSecurity Agency.

China is a state party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which include the principle of non-refoulement, not forcibly returning refugees to countries where they face a substantial risk of persecution or torture. By forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees, China is in flagrant violation of international law. Furthermore, China has denied the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to North Korean refugees in China. ICNK believes that all North Koreans in China qualify for refugee status because of the genuine risk of imprisonment, torture and sometimes execution if they are returned.

“These forced repatriations represent a shocking disregard for fundamental human rights,” said Ha Tae Keung of Open NK. “The PRC government is willfully violating its treaty obligations by failing to protect these refugees. North Koreans forced back in the past have faced torture, life-long imprisonment or execution at the hands of the North Korean authorities”

North Koreans fleeing to China clearly fit the definition of refugees sur place, which UNHCR defines as persons who may not have been considered refugees when they left their country but who later become refugees because they have a valid fear of persecution upon return. North Koreans who leave their country without permission all have valid reasons for fearing persecution and punishment upon return because their government treats such departures as a criminal offense and actively arrests and prosecutes offenders.  ICNK believes that all North Koreans in China should be recognized as refugees and given access to the UNHCR.

North Koreadoes not allowits citizensto travel abroad without state permission, and leaving the country is regarded as a “crime of treachery against the nation” under North Korean law. However, thousands of North Koreans illegally cross the border into China every year despite significant risks. China considers all undocumented North Koreans to be economic migrants and forcibly returns them to North Korea if they are caught.

“China would do better to press North Korea to respect human rights than to force back men, women and even children who flee because they are hungry or persecuted,” said Kanae Doi, Japan director of Human Rights Watch. 

In January, the North Korean authorities condemned border-crossers and threatened them with severe punishments on return to North Korea. These comments came at a time when the country’s leadership is changing. ICNK is concerned that the denunciation of border-crossers could signal that those returned may be subjected to even harsher punishment than usual.

Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, based in London said, “These kinds of arrests do not occur without the collusion of security forces from both countries. Both governments are culpable. What is quite different in this case is the variety and volume of international protest. China should recognise that if it wants to be respected as an international power, it should change its policy of forcible repatriation which violates international law. The PRC must recognize that with power comes responsibility, and that there is a price to pay for these actions. ”

The ICNK is calling on the North Korean authorities to:

  • desist from arresting, imprisoning, torturing, executing or inflicting any punishment or persecution on any of its citizens who have been forcibly repatriated;
  • recognize that its obligations under international law require that the North Korean people be allowed to freely leave and return to their own country;
  • under no circumstances imprison or otherwise punish individuals or families for ‘guilt by association;’
  • end human rights violations against North Koreans for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and other rights provided for in the international human rights treaties ratified by the DPRK, and ensure access to adequate food for all persons in the country;

The ICNK also calls on the People’s Republic of China to:

  • ensure that all North Koreans entering China are able to enjoy asylum and undergo, in a timely way, refugee status determination that meets international human rights standards, including prima facie recognition of their refugee status; and allow representatives of the UNHCR access to assess the protection needs of North Koreans in China.
  • immediately halt the practice of automatically arresting and returning North Koreans found in the PRC;
  • release all North Korean refugees currently in detention;
  • protect the rights of North Korean refugees in China, including ensuring safe passage to other countries.


Membersand supporters of the Coalition include:

  • Advocates International Global Council
  • Amnesty International
  • Asia Justice and Rights
  • Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances
  • Asian Human Rights & Humanity Association of Japan
  • Burma Partnership (Thailand)
  • Christian Lawyers Association for Paraguay
  • Christian Solidarity Worldwide
  • Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (USA)
  • Conectas (Brazil)
  • Council for Human Rights in North Korea (Canada)
  • Freedom House (USA)
  • Free NK Gulag (ROK)
  • Free North Korea Radio (ROK)
  • Han Voice (Canada)
  • HH Katacombs(ROK)
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Human Rights Without Frontiers (Belgium)
  • Inter-American Federation of Christian Lawyers
  • International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  • COMJAN (Investigation Commission on Missing Japanese Probably Related to North Korea)(Japan)
  • Japanese Lawyers Association for Abduction and Other Human Rights Issues in North Korea
  • Jubilee Campaign (USA)
  • Justice forNorth Korea (ROK)
  • Kontras (Indonesia)
  • Liberty in North Korea - LiNK (USA)
  • Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (Japan)
  • Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights(ROK)
  • NK Intellectual Solidarity(ROK)
  • No Fence (Japan)
  • North Korea Freedom Coalition
  • Odhikar (Bangladesh)
  • Open North Korea (ROK)
  • People In Need (Czech Republic)
  • PSALT NK (Prayer Service Action Love Truth for North Korea)
  • The Simon Wiesenthal Center (USA)
  • The Society to Help Returnees to North Korea (Japan)
  • Students Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea(ROK)
  • Young Defectors' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights(ROK)
  • Yuki Akimoto, Burmainfo (Japan)
  • Tomoharu Ebihara
  • David Hawk, Visiting Scholar, Columbia University, Institute for the Study of Human Rights, and author of Hidden Gulag
  • Ken Kato, Director, Human Rights in Asia (Japan)
  • Tomoyuki Kawazoe, Representative, Kanagawa Association for The Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea / Member, Reporters Without Borders
  • Suzanne Scholte, Seoul Peace Prize Recipient & Defense Forum Foundation (USA)
  • Dr. Norbert Vollertsen