II. Summary

I have been living with my husband for about ten years now. We have a seven-year-old son. I never committed any crime. But I don’t have any residency status, and neither does my son. It really worries me that he can’t go to school.

—  42-year-old woman from Musan, North Korea, living with a Chinese man in a de facto marriage relationship

Where I live, if you want to obtain hukou [household registration permit] for a half-Chinese, half-North Korean child, you must obtain a police document verifying the mother’s arrest or another form that you fill out explaining that the mother ran away. You also need signatures of three witnesses who would testify that she was repatriated or ran away, and submit them to the police. But that’s not all. You have to treat [bribe] relevant officials.

—  Chinese father of MH, age eight, whose North Korean mother was arrested and repatriated to North Korea in 2005

In the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in eastern Jilin province, northeast China, many North Korean children and children of Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers live in legal limbo. There is no official data estimating the number of such children living in the area, but local residents put the number at anywhere between a few thousand and several tens of thousands.

A serious problem these children face is access to education, as Chinese schools require verification of identity for admittance and continued schooling. In China, every citizen must be registered under a household registration system called hukou. Chinese law stipulates that a child born in China is entitled to citizenship if either parent is a Chinese citizen. However, since registering a child would expose the identity of the mother, Chinese men who have had children with North Korean women are faced with an awful choice. They can register their child at the risk of exposing their mothers, who could be arrested and repatriated to North Korea as “illegal” economic migrants, or they can decide not to register the child—leaving the child without access to education. When both parents are North Koreans, it is impossible for a child to obtain hukou.

Children of North Korean women face different treatment in different districts in Yanbian. Practices are often harsh: in many districts, officials routinely arrest and repatriate North Korean women found to be living with Chinese men in their districts. Although the law does not explicitly require it, some also refuse to allow the registration of half-North Korean children as Chinese citizens unless and until their mothers have been arrested and repatriated to North Korea. In one exceptional case, the authorities in a small district began allowing in 2007 the registration of half-North Korean children as Chinese citizens without requiring documentation about their mothers.

The Chinese government’s policy of arresting and repatriating North Korean women who have children with Chinese men violates China’s obligations under both domestic and international law. Such women leave their country for various reasons, including hunger and political persecution. North Korea considers leaving without state permission an act of treason and harshly punishes those who are forcibly repatriated. Returnees face arbitrary detention, torture and other mistreatment, and sometimes even the death penalty. This strong risk of persecution means many North Korean migrants become entitled to protection as refugees.

Repatriating North Koreans in circumstances in which their life or freedom could be threatened at home is a violation of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention), while separating children from their mothers (by repatriating the mothers to North Korea) is a violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). China is a party to both of these treaties. Currently, China does not allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to North Koreans in Yanbian to determine their refugee status.

Under domestic and international laws, China also has a legal obligation to grant all children in China access to education, regardless of their legal status. North Korean or half-North Korean children should not be required to submit copies of hukou for admittance to schools or continuing schooling, nor should their parents and guardians be forced to pay bribes to officials to enable the children to receive education. China must immediately stop such practices and allow access to education for all children, without preconditions.

To investigate these issues, Human Rights Watch traveled to Chinese towns and cities near the China-North Korea border between late November 2007 and early January 2008. Although such research poses significant security concerns, not the least of which is potential reprisals against interviewees, we were able to speak in secure settings with 23 children of Korean women and 18 adults with firsthand knowledge of the conditions such children face (including parents, guardians, missionaries, and others). Of the children, 12 (seven boys and five girls) were North Korean and 11 (six boys and five girls) had Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers. To protect them from possible retribution we have used initials, instead of their names, and have provided only general locations of interviews.

While the number of interviews is small, the problems addressed in this report stem from larger questions of legal status which directly affect tens of thousands of North Koreans in Yanbian and beyond. We are confident that the conditions described by the children and parents interviewed for this report are illustrative of those faced by similarly situated children throughout the region.

In accordance with the CRC, in this report, a “child” refers to anyone under the age of 18.

Human Rights Watch urges the Chinese government to:

  • Grant all children access to education without requiring proof of legal identity.

  • Allow hukou registration for all children with one Chinese parent without requiring verification of the identity of the other parent.

  • Stop arresting and repatriating North Koreans, especially children and women who have children with Chinese men.

  • Allow UNHCR access to North Koreans in China, including children, to determine their refugee status.

  • Ratify the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

  • Human Rights Watch urges the North Korean government to:

  • Stop punishing North Koreans who leave, or attempt to leave, North Korea without state permission, including North Koreans who are repatriated to North Korea.

  • Repeal all laws that criminalize leaving the country without state permission, especially the criminal law provision that defines such travel as treason. Acknowledge the right to leave the country as a basic human right.