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Photos of the North Korean refugees helped by the North Korea Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea are displayed in Seoul, South Korea on June 11, 2019. © 2019 Josh Smith/Reuters

The Chinese government forcibly returned about 60 North Korean refugees on April 26, putting them at grave risk of enforced disappearance, torture, sexual violence, wrongful imprisonment, forced labor, and execution.

This round of forced returns came soon after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with China’s third highest official, Zhao Leji, on April 13, seeking stronger bilateral ties.

The meeting had raised concerns among North Koreans in exile and rights activists that China might speed up forced repatriations of North Koreans.

Stephen Kim, the pseudonym of an underground missionary, said the Chinese government had forcibly returned this group of North Koreans from China’s Jilin and Liaoning provinces. He said that the Chinese authorities had apprehended at least 92 North Koreans since January. He could not confirm whether anyone among the 92 was forcibly returned on April 26, but thought it was highly unlikely.

Human Rights Watch has separately confirmed that the Chinese government has forcibly returned more than 670 North Koreans since Pyongyang closed its northern border in early 2020. This includes more than 500 North Koreans on October 9, 2023, 40 others on September 18, 2023, 80 on August 29, 2023, and about 50 in July 2021.

The Chinese government routinely labels North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” and forcibly repatriates them under a 1986 bilateral border protocol. But as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the United Nations Convention against Torture, China is obligated not to force back anyone who would be at risk of persecution or torture, a breach of the fundamental principle of nonrefoulement.

North Korean authorities consider departures from the country without permission a serious crime. Since anyone who returns to North Korea after fleeing will likely be subjected to torture or otherwise mistreated, everyone who flees North Korea has a claim for refugee status in whichever country they reach and should be given the opportunity to have that claim heard.

Governments around the world, including South Korea, should call for an end to all forced returns to North Korea. The Chinese government should provide asylum to North Koreans in China or give them safe passage to South Korea or another safe third country. It should also allow the UN Refugee Agency to exercise its mandate and provide access to all detained North Korean refugees.

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