(Seoul) – South Korean President Park Geun-Hye should urgently press Chinese leaders in Beijing to halt the forced return of a group of nine North Korean refugees to North Korea, and to permit them to travel and seek asylum in a country of their choice, including South Korea, Human Rights Watch said today in letters to President Park and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

A barbed-wire fence separating North Korea from China is seen in this photo taken from the Chinese border city of Tumen, China on March 18, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

“Time is running out for these nine refugees, so President Park needs to immediately press China’s government to ensure this group is not sent back into harm’s way,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “No one should forget that if this group is handed over, they will likely disappear into a North Korean prison camp system characterized by torture, violence, and severe deprivation.”

According to the latest information received by family members of the nine refugees, the group was being held in Tumen, Jilin province, at a Chinese military garrison near the China-North Korea border. Given the proximity to the border, Human Rights Watch is concerned that a forced return could happen at any time.
 
No one should forget that if this group is handed over, they will likely disappear into a North Korean prison camp system characterized by torture, violence, and severe deprivation.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Director, Asia Division

North Koreans who leave the country without permission face certain harsh punishment upon repatriation and should be considered as refugees sur place – people who become refugees as a result of fleeing their country or due to circumstances arising after their flight. In 2010, the North Korea Ministry of People’s Security adopted a decree making defection a crime of “treachery against the nation,” punishable by death. North Koreans who have fled the country since 2013, or who are residing outside the country but are able to surreptitiously communicate with contacts inside North Korea, have told Human Rights Watch that people caught and repatriated from China face incarceration and mistreatment in kwanliso, or political prison camps, operated by the State Security Ministry.

On November 19, 2015, the South Korean government co-sponsored a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning grave human rights violations in North Korea, which received support from 112 states. After the summit between Park and United States President Barack Obama on October 16, both leaders jointly agreed to “improve the human rights situation in North Korea and ensure accountability for human rights violations, as well as to improve the livelihood of the people in North Korea.”

Human Rights Watch called for the South Korean government to step up its leadership to save this group. Park should press the Chinese government to reveal the whereabouts of the group, and demand that Beijing abide by its international obligations to protect refugees as a ratifying state of the 1951 Refugees Convention and its 1967 Optional Protocol, as well as the Convention Against Torture, and under no circumstances force them back to a place where they could face persecution.

“President Park should make it very clear to China that this group of nine North Koreans is not alone and not anonymous,” Robertson said. “China needs to know that the world is watching and expects Beijing to live up to its commitments to protect refugees under binding international law.”