China has primary responsibility for the protection of North Korean migrants in China who qualify as refugees under international law. The Refugee Convention forbids states to push back migrants "to the frontiers of territories where [their] life or freedom would be threatened on account of...race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."60 This injunction, known as the norm against refoulement or return, has attained the status of customary international law, binding on all states whether or not they are party to these international treaties.
Some of the many North Koreans hiding in China may meet this criterion on the basis of actual persecution they endured in their homeland. As discussed below, North Korea's abysmal human rights practices include severe discrimination against individuals on the basis of social group/family background or imputed political belief. Others, while not the object of persecution in North Korea, would now probably face a high risk of abusive punishment if returned on account of their experiences in China, which have cast a light of presumed disloyalty upon them. Persons in this situation are termed refugees sur place, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a longstanding understanding that such persons are entitled to the protections of the Convention and its Protocol.61
Because North Korea under the rule of Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, has been one of the most tightly sealed-off nations in the world, it has been difficult to conduct reliable human rights research on conditions there. The outflow of a significant number of North Koreans has provided a window into some of the most repressive features of this society. Although we are reluctant to rely on such a small sample of interviews to draw firm conclusions, the abuses described to Human Rights Watch tend to corroborate other accounts published in South Korea, and should be the subject of further serious inquiry and consideration by those evaluating refugee claims.
Collective Punishment and Discrimination
According to those interviewed by Human Rights Watch, family background is still a key determinant of life in North Korea.62 Those lucky enough to be considered as "core" supporters of the government, such as party members or families of war martyrs, are given preferences for educational and employment opportunities, allowed to live in better-off areas, and have greater access to food and other material goods. Those considered of ordinary or ambivalent political loyalty lead less entitled, more precarious lives, while those considered to be of a "hostile" or disloyal profile, such as relatives of people who collaborated with the Japanese during the Japanese occupation, landowners, or those who went south during the Korean War, suffer the most, often being assigned to the worst schools, jobs and localities, and sometimes winding up in labor camps.
As discussed in the cases described at pages 9-10, a number of those we interviewed described the events that led to flight from North Korea in terms of their social, and consequent economic, marginalization. In the year 2000, Good Friends conducted surveys with North Korean adults in China on social conditions in North Korea. In the second survey, involving 521 respondents, approximately one quarter said they had experienced discrimination because of their family background. Less educated people claimed to have experienced discrimination in significantly greater proportion than well-educated people.63 When asked to name the prerequisites for tertiary education, a "good" family background was cited by the highest percentage (56.5 percent), slightly more than high test scores or talent (53.8 percent). Young people and people assigned to agricultural work tended to cite family background as a determining factor more often than other groups.64
The UNHCR explicitly recognizes that the line between economic and political motivations for flight is blurred, and that severe social discrimination can amount to "persecution" under international law, giving rise to refugee status. "Behind economic measures affecting a person's livelihood there may be racial, religious or political aims or intentions directed against a particular group."65 Discrimination may amount to persecution if the acts are cumulative or are substantially prejudicial in impact, such as serious restrictions on the right to earn a living, practice a religion, or have access to normally available education.66 These standards should be taken into account when describing any particular group of North Koreans in China as economic migrants or Convention and Protocol refugees.
The defection of one family member to South Korea can cause the blacklisting of all other close relatives left in North Korea. Almost all the refugees we interviewed insisted on using pseudonyms and deleting material that could identify relatives left behind in the North. Several related incidents where they knew of specific individuals who had been sent to a political prison camp because of relatives who were known as defectors. One man who had suffered years in a political prison camp because of his father's supposed disloyalty and eventual defection knew it would be considered a serious case if he were caught trying to cross the border. "I thought it would be all right to lose my own life, but I hated to think that my act might harm my mother and brother." He told us:
Punishment Upon Return
Article 47 of the Code provides:
The actual treatment of those returned from China has varied over the past decade, apparently becoming more lenient in 1999 and 2000, but there are reasons to suspect it is worsening again in 2002.
Many refugees we interviewed who left the country in the 1990s voiced extreme fear of the consequences of repatriation. One man recounted the family's preparation to commit suicide:
Mr. Cho, a former North Korean military official, entered the South Korean Embassy in Hanoi one Sunday in January 1999. The lone staff person there called Vietnamese police to eject him because he looked "like a ragged beggar with a beard at that time." He spent the night at a Vietnamese police station, panicking.
There have been fairly consistent reports that penalties had been lessened in 1999-2000 for persons who crossed to China in search of food. According to numerous nongovernmental organization (NGO) sources and the "word on the street" in the refugee community in Seoul, persons who could convince the authorities that they were "first time" offenders who were just looking to make money or buy food would be detained a few days, or at most a few months and then released. This information was reflected by a former border guard who related:
However, those we interviewed produced fairly consistent lists of "aggravating factors" that would result in a returnee being sentenced to anything from a few months to an indefinite term in a reeducation camp; some refugees believed in serious cases they could also lead to execution. These included:
· repeated crossings (two to three times or more);
The former border guard quoted above also related that he carefully hid the fact he had married another North Korean while in China. "Since I had a record of having been sent to a political prison camp [before my escape], I lied and said I was a vagrant, without any address, because I feared that I might be killed by gunshot or be sent to an underground prison if they identified me."74
As this report was being prepared for publication, Human Rights Watch received reports from aid workers in the China border region that in addition to the tighter security at the border, there have been mass returns taking place since May 2002, with very little in the way of people returning to China. Even the street children, who typically return a few days after their deportation, have not come back. This suggests that there may be a change in the treatment of those who are returned, in addition to stepped-up monitoring at the border.
The procedure for repatriation appears to be that Chinese public security or national security agents deliver the migrants to collection points just across the border administered by North Korea's National Security Agency. The National Security Agency then conducts a preliminary screening, and sends prisoners on to other facilities for either punishment or further investigation.
The former border guard related he was repatriated to Musan in April 2000:
For Kim Sung-min, arrested after asking a Chinese officer for political asylum and repatriated in early 1996 after criticizing Kim Jong Il to an interrogator whom he thought was a Chinese official, punishment began immediately.
There he was severely beaten and interrogated, day after day. He finally revealed his identity as a writer for a military propaganda unit, and discovered that the interrogator to whom he had confided his political discontent in China was actually a North Korean officer.
Kim ultimately escaped by jumping off the train headed for his home province while his guard went to the bathroom.
When a returnee's motive or conduct is deemed not to amount to a political crime, he or she may be paroled or transferred to a detention facility of the Social Safety Bureau, the agency that normally handles detention for common crimes. When this is not feasible, sometimes alternative facilities are used, such as labor training camps (nodong danryundae) or provincial concentration centers (do jibkyulso). Labor training centers are for those who commit minor economic crimes; concentration centers are for temporary detention and investigation of those accused of serious common crimes such as murder or capital offenses. The former border guard who convinced the preliminary investigator he was simply a beggar had this experience:
Another former detainee we interviewed told about his arrest in 1999:
One of the more disturbing accounts we received came from a woman who was pregnant at the time she was repatriated in April 2000.79 After preliminary investigation, she was sent to the provincial concentration center in Chongjin city. Although she was pregnant, she did not realize it for some time because she was malnourished and her menstrual periods had stopped long before, she presumed from stress. She related that the concentration center had a policy of aborting pregnancies and killing babies born to women prisoners.
This woman was released without the authorities ever learning she was pregnant. "I had wounds and rashes on my body and I also had a fever disease...They just sent me out from the prison camp because they thought I was dying." Her relative told us that at the time of her release, she was unable to walk. "I came to know that I was pregnant after feeling the kicking after six months...we hid the fact...because it was very dangerous to let them know that I got married in China."
Human Rights Watch did not interview any refugees who had been sent to so-called political prison camps or administrative camps (Kwanriso) upon repatriation, but several claimed to know of cases where the relatives of defectors had been sent to these facilities, which are described in the next section.
Accounts of Labor Camps
Mr. Lee K, a former soldier from a "bad" family background, learned about conditions in China and South Korea from Korean Chinese who visited relatives and did business in his home province of North Hamgyung. When we asked if he had learned anything from broadcasts, he denied watching foreign programs: "Even watching Chinese television can be punished if discovered. If a person is found listening to South Korean broadcasting, he could be punished in a political prison or executed." He recalled that such an execution had happened to a worker in his prefecture.
Like many of those we interviewed, Mr. Lee K. believed that relatives and acquaintances of escapees risked being imprisoned, and he was acquainted with several people who had suffered this fate. "Life in the political prison camp is worse than death," he remarked, also an opinion voiced by others we interviewed. Mr. Lee K.'s views were informed by the fact that in the early 1990s, prior to fleeing through China to South Korea, he had worked as a guard in a labor reeducation camp for minor offenders in North Korea and had learned about other camps from other guards and their families.
He outlined a variety of penal labor camps: there are "labor training centers," or nodong danryundae, for misdemeanor crimes of less than six months, such as travelling without permission, illegal trading, and lewd behavior; there are similar camps for misdemeanors of less than a year's sentence. Because the term is short, the work requirements are intense. He remarked, "You cannot imagine how harsh the living conditions are. They eat rats, grasses. Their living conditions are indescribable. There is a ration distribution, it is graded from the first to seventh degree. But it is not enough food to live on." Kyohuaso, or "reeducation centers," house more serious criminals such as rapists, robbers, murderers, embezzlers, economic criminals given a sentence of two years or more, and those who have illegally crossed the border more than three times. Consignment to a reeducation center is decided by a meeting of the Social Safety Bureau. There are also kwanriso, or administrative camps, also known as political prison camps. Mr. Lee K. had observed two in his home prefecture when the camps were consolidated and relocated and their quarters allocated to local residents, and came to know about their operations from the families of guards living nearby.
Mr. Lee described rations in labor training camps and reeducation centers as similar, depending on whether the particular facility grew crops or not. The basic diet was soy sauce, a little fat, cornmeal, some salt water, and perhaps some kimchee (fermented cabbage). Men and women are separated, sometimes with 300 to 400 people sleeping crowded into one room, unable to stretch their legs.
Mr. Lee noted, however, that his perception of conditions as a guard might differ from that of a prisoner.80
A different Mr. Lee. provided that perspective. Lee M. and his family were sent to a political prison camp, known also as an administrative camp or kwanriso, when his brother, an army battalion leader, was arrested attempting unsuccessfully to traffic uranium.81 From 1995 to 1998 he lived in the 15th administrative camp known as Yoduk in the Pyongpungje valley, Daeheung County, Pyongan Province. A different source told us that the 12th and 13th administrative camps in Onsong Country had been moved to Yoduk and that there was a consolidation of prisons (though not a reduction in the number of prisoners) after an Amnesty International report on prison camps.82
Lee M. explained that there are first, second and third degree facilities in an administrative camp, in order of severity, although all are labor facilities that do not allow people to move inside or outside freely. His family was placed in a third degree facility of Yoduk camp, but he was able to observe first and second degree facilities when his logging unit was sent there to work. He noted that while labor was hard in the third degree camp, men and women could marry and live together. Unmarried women and elderly people could stay home and cultivate gardens, and children could go to school.
The third degree facility where he lived in the Yoduk complex was located across from the mountain Baeksan in the vicinity of Daeheung County. The inhabitants in the first and second degree facilities were known as "fixed inmates." The number of inhabitants in the third degree facility numbered about 30,000. The first and second degree camps, also clustered near the mountain Baeksan, held 20,000 to 30,000 each as well; he estimated the Youduk administrative camp, also known as the 15th administrative camp, to hold about 70,000 persons all together.
His logging unit worked sixteen to eighteen hours a day, producing seven square meters of logs per day. Security guards followed them when they were working and checked to ensure they returned back to the village. They lived in the mountains where they worked most of the time, visiting home every ten days or so. Rations for the loggers were terrible: 450 grams of corn and wheat boiled into a gruel. His description of survival tactics echo accounts of those who survived the height of the famine:
Apart from material privation and forced labor, Lee M. described violence and sexual abuse as normal conditions.
Lee M. lived in the Yoduk camp at the same time as the family of a well-known defector, Hwang Jang Yup,83 did. According to him, after Hwang Jang Yup's son tried to escape from the facility to go to South Korea, the whole family was moved to a higher security section of the camp.
Another account of life in an administrative camp was provided by Mr. Kim Yong. He explained that he was raised in an orphanage and was told that his father had been killed by a bomb during the Korean War.84 He was a model youth, joining the Korean Workers Party at age nineteen, and rising to a responsible position in the State Security Bureau. His fortunes changed abruptly when it was discovered in 1993 that his father was actually alleged to have been a United States CIA spy, and had been arrested and executed in 1957.
After investigation, Kim found himself assigned in October 1993 to be a prisoner in the 14th administrative camp in Kaechon County, Southern Pyongan province, controlled by the National Security Agency. According to Kim Yong, the 14th administrative camp was a facility for persons who were found guilty of rebellion, criticizing Kim Jong Il, espionage, pacifism during the war, or landowning crimes. This was a severe facility, in which family members had to live separately according to sex, and husbands and wives were not allowed to have children. Mothers could keep children until they were twelve years old, in the fourth grade of elementary school. Rooms were covered in plastic vinyl. Beds were wooden, two-tiers high. Working groups lived in these rooms together, which were locked from the outside. Kim Yong was assigned to work in a mine there, working 720 meters underground from 8:00 in the morning, sometimes until early the morning of the next day. "We had to work until we had finished the assignment or until we passed a quality test. Nobody blames the guards when they shoot people there."
In 1996, Kim Yong was transferred across the Daedong river to the 18th administrative camp, under the Social Safety Bureau, where he stayed until he escaped North Korea in 1998. In the 18th administrative camp, he was reunited with his mother, who had been living there since his father was executed in 1957. The 18th administrative camp had a section for common criminals as well as for family members of political criminals, "people who were to be separated from society-like my mother." Here, he was also assigned to work in a mine, although he ultimately received a lighter assignment repairing coal trolleys. The workers were given a handful of corn for each meal, along with salt water and cabbage. "Everyone had to work. Even my mother had to work. Everybody had to work until they died."
Another man, who had spent ages twelve to nineteen in the 18th administrative camp in Duksung-gun before being released in 1983, confirmed that this camp was under the control of the Social Safety Bureau.85 Unlike camps controlled by the National Security Agency, children living there could be educated through the fifth grade of junior high school; in National Security Agency camps, education ended with the fourth grade of elementary school. He also confirmed that the workload was somewhat lighter than in National Security Agency administrative camps.
Kim related two harrowing incidents he had witnessed. In his first year at the 14th administrative camp, a security officer shot dead the driver of a coal trolley who stopped to pick chestnuts that had fallen from trees onto the tracks. "I saw that dead driver still had a chestnut clutched in his hand." Another time an officer caught a prisoner trying to chew an oxtail whip for nourishment; he beat the prisoner and forced him to eat intestinal worms picked out of a latrine. The man died two days later. He concluded: "There are so many miserable stories. People pick undigested beans out of the dung of oxen to eat. They compete to take the clothes off of dead bodies to wear. It is not a human world."
We also received an account of a prison facility designated specifically for military personnel.86 A former border guard told us he had been detained in the 606 detention camp (suyongso) for seven months in 1998. He believed his arrest and detention stemmed from an incident, which he had confided to an apprehended border crosser that he set free, that he himself had once met his aunt from South Korea in the Yanbian border area. The border crosser, however, was subsequently captured by other security officials and implicated the guard for contact with a South Korean.
The 606 camp was designated for officials charged with economic and political crimes. Conditions were harsh and inmates were treated much like to political prisoners, with no visitors allowed. He gave the following chilling account:
Some refugees who had not experienced these conditions had nevertheless heard about them or viewed abandoned prison camps, and the view that being sent to one was a fate worse than death was an often-repeated remark.
61 See, UNHCR, Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees [hereinafter UNHCR Handbook] paragraphs 94-96 (on the understanding of refugee sur place) and paragraph 61 (on severe punishment for illegal departure), HCR/IP/4/Eng/Rev1, (Geneva: UNHCR 1992).
62 According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, "Under a citizens' registration project initiated in 1947, the population is reportedly divided into a `core class' of 28% of the population who are regarded as loyal, a `wavering class' which accounts for 45% of the population and a `hostile class' of 27% of the population, which includes, for example, families of defectors and those with relatives who fled to the South during the Korean War. These three classes are further divided into more than fifty subcategories based on perceived loyalty to the party and leadership. Authorities routinely use forced resettlement, particularly for those deemed politically unreliable, and there are reports that some children are denied educational and other opportunities as a result of the political classification system." Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade webpage on the DPRK, at http://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/dprk/dprk_brief_introduction.html. See also Andrea M. Savada, North Korea: A Country Study, "Classes and Social Strata," (Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Service, Library of Congress, June 1993), available in electronic form at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/.
84 This account and related quotations are from Human Rights Watch interview with Kim Yong, Seoul, July 23, 2001. Mr. Kim has also presented his experiences to the annual general assembly meeting of the NGO Citizens Alliance to Help Political Prisoners in North Korea, on February 24, 2000, available at www.chosunjournal.com/youngkimtestimony.html.