(Seoul) – China should immediately disclose the whereabouts of eight North Korean refugees currently detained in China, publicly pledge that none of them will be returned to North Korea, and provide them with asylum or allow departure to a third country of their choice, Human Rights Watch said today. North Koreans who are forced back after fleeing their country face a real risk of torture, sexual violence and abuse, incarceration in forced labor camps, and public executions, making them refugees sur place in the need of urgent protection.

A North Korean soldier keeps watch at the Yalu River in Sinuiju, North Korea, which borders Dandong in China's Liaoning province, April 15, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters/Aly Song

“By now, there are plenty of survivor accounts that reveal Kim Jong-Un’s administration is routinely persecuting those who are forced back to North Korea after departing illegally, and subjecting them to torture, sexual violence, forced labor – and even worse,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government in Beijing should respect its obligations under the Refugee Convention by protecting these eight North Koreans, and under no circumstances force them back to North Korea.”

Chinese government officials detained a group of eight North Koreans in mid-March 2017 during what appeared to be a random check on a road in northeastern China. A Christian pastor following the travel progress of the group told Human Rights Watch that the group had gathered in Shenyang city, in Liaoning province. Traffic police stopped their vehicle in the middle of the night, and after realizing the travelers did not have valid identification documents, took the group to a local police station.

While waiting inside their vehicle parked outside of the police station, they contacted the pastor, and sent him desperate voice messages and video recordings asking for help from Chinese President Xi Jinping and other world leaders. One of the members said, “Please, please help us. If we are sent to North Korea, we die. Please save us.”  Soon after they sent those messages, the group was taken by police into the station for questioning.

Several hours later, refugees contacted “Kwon,” the pseudonym of one of the group member’s 18-year-old son, who has lived in South Korea since 2013. Then after another few hours, a member of the group contacted Kwon and told him his mother had collapsed under the pressure of the detention, and that the police had taken her to the hospital. Afterwards a Korean-speaking officer walked in and confiscated their cell phones. However, one group member hid a cell phone and later texted the pastor to tell him. The following day, the group contacted Kwon for the last time, and said the police had brought his mother back to the prison. At the beginning of April, the pastor heard from people he knows in China that the group was still in China, held close to the original location where they were detained, but he and Kwon could not get official confirmation of the exact whereabouts of the group. The pastor and Kwon fear the group could face immediate forced return to North Korea, saying they believe most repatriations happen within two months after detention.

The pastor said among the group are two women who said they had previously been sold to Chinese men and faced beatings at their hands. Those two women managed to escape their captors, but they had nowhere to go Two other women suffered injuries that they couldn’t treat in China because they couldn’t go to the hospital given their undocumented status: one woman had badly hurt her head, hip, and back in a recent traffic accident and the other is Kwon’s mother, who had been sick for several years with an unknown disease. Her health situation has worsened in the past few months.

The government in Beijing should respect its obligations under the Refugee Convention by protecting these eight North Koreans, and under no circumstances force them back to North Korea.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

Activists and family members have reported to Human Rights Watch at least 41 detentions of North Koreans in China over the past nine months, including a teenager, a 10-year-old child, and a woman who is seven-months pregnant. Based on information received from family members, Human Rights Watch believes at least nine of these people were forcibly returned to North Korea. However, Human Rights Watch does not have reliable estimates of the total overall number of North Koreans returned to North Korea by the Chinese government. Forcing North Koreans back to North Korea amounts to refoulement, or the sending of persons back to territory where they face serious human rights violations (persecution) or torture, a practice forbidden by international treaties to which China is a party.

According to testimonies received by Human Rights Watch from North Koreans who have been apprehended in China and returned to North Korea, the North Korean government treats those who leave the country without permission harshly upon repatriation.

In 2010, North Korea’s 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 with contacts inside the country, have told Human Rights Watch that people repatriated by China, who were caught trying to go to South Korea, can face seven to fifteen years of forced labor in ordinary prison camps (kyohwaso – re-education correctional facilities), incarceration in political prison camps (kwanliso), or even execution. Those who had been illegally living in China may be sentenced to more than two years of forced labor in ordinary prison camps. A former senior official in the North Korean state security service (bowibu), who worked on the border and received North Koreans sent back from China, told Human Rights Watch that they torture every single returnee to find out where they had been in China, who they had contacted, and what activities they had done.

Political prison camps in North Korea are characterized by systematic abuses and often deadly conditions, including meager rations that lead to near starvation, virtually no medical care, lack of proper housing and clothes, regular mistreatment – including sexual assault and torture by guards, and executions. Death rates in these camps are reportedly extremely high. Detainees in ordinary prison camps face forced labor, food and medicine shortages, and regular mistreatment by guards.

The 2014 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…to isolate the population from contact with the outside world.” It also found that “almost all of the repatriated people are subjected to inhumane acts. The torture, sexual violence and inhumane conditions of detention that victims endure during the search and initial interrogation phase appear to be based on standard procedures.”

China regularly labels North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” and repatriates them based on a 1986 border protocol. However, regardless of the reasons they initially leave the country, North Koreans are virtually guaranteed extremely abusive treatment if forced back, qualifying them as refugees sur place or refugees because of circumstances post-dating their departure.

China, as a state party to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the 1984 Convention against Torture, is specifically obliged not to return refugees when that may put them at risk of persecution or torture. The same obligations bind China as a matter of customary international law.

Human Rights Watch calls on China to immediately stop forced repatriation of North Koreans, and to allow the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to exercise its mandate. China should provide asylum to North Korean refugees, give them the option to seek resettlement in a third country, or allow them to pass through Chinese territory without fear of arrest or forcible repatriation.

In December 2016, the Security Council discussed for a third year in a row the human rights situation in North Korea as a threat to international peace and security. Last month, the UN Human Rights Council passed without a vote a resolution that strengthens the UN’s work to assess and develop strategies to prosecute the continued pervasive abuse of human rights by the North Korean government.

“There is no way to sugar coat this: if this group is forced back to North Korea, their lives and safety will be at risk,” said Robertson. “The world is watching to see whether Beijing observes its duty to protect these eight refugees or becomes complicit with North Korea’s abuses.”