The countryside in Yanbian where many North Koreans have settled has a heavy concentration of Chinese citizens of Korean descent.2 The area also has a serious shortage of young Chinese women because a large number of them have reportedly moved to cities and other countries in search of better paying employment. In the wake of their exodus many North Korean women have formed relationships and had children with Chinese men and assumed jobs as farm workers traditionally held by local women.3 Some North Korean women have done so voluntarily, while others have been forced into these situations as victims of trafficking.4
The mass migration of North Koreans to China was triggered by a famine in the mid-1990s that killed about one million people in North Korea out of a population that numbered just over 20 million. The disaster left many children orphaned, homeless, and stunted for life, both physically and mentally. As survivors struggled to find food and work, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, mostly those living in areas close to China, crossed the border. Many went to China intending to stay briefly to earn money and return home to feed their families, but some eventually settled there.5
In North Korea, freedom of movement to travel abroad is severely restricted. Obtaining a passport is extremely difficult; the process is very time consuming, prohibitively costly, and, most importantly, passports are generally issued to those vetted for political loyalty to the state. Consequently, most North Koreans in China have left without state permission. This is often considered an act of treason, a crime punishable by heavy penalties, including forced labor, long prison terms, and in extreme cases even the death penalty.6 This violates the internationally recognized right to leave ones country.7 It also means North Koreans who have left without state permission are refugees,8 as explained earlier. Since late 2004, North Korea has repeatedly threatened even harsher punishments for those crossing the border without permission, including even longer prison terms than before.9
Despite the harsh treatment awaiting such individuals, the Chinese government continues to categorically label them illegal economic migrants, and it regularly arrests and repatriates them. China may have legitimate reasons to be concerned about a mass influx of North Koreans into its territory; absorbing a large number of poor and hungry people is a considerable burden to any society. But China also has international legal obligations, as a signatory to the Refugee Convention and other human rights treaties, to offer North Koreans shelter and protection and to grant UNHCR access to the North Koreans in Yanbian to determine their status.10
1 The prefecture encompasses Chinese cities near the border of North Korea, including Yanji, Tumen, Helong, Antu, Huichun, Wangqing, and Dunhua. It is often referred to simply as Yanbian. See http://www.china.org.cn/e-groups/shaoshu/shao-2-korean.htm (accessed on February 18, 2008).
2 See http://www.china.org.cn/e-groups/shaoshu/shao-2-korean.htm (accessed on February 18, 2008).
3 See Human Rights Watch, The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the Peoples Republic of China, vol. 14, no. 8(C), November 2002, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/northkorea/.
7 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted December 10, 1948, G.A. Res. 217A(III), U.N. Doc. A/810 at 71 (1948), art. 13.
8 See Human Rights Watch, The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the Peoples Republic of China.
9 See Human Rights Watch, North Korea: Harsher Punishment against Border-Crossers, no.1, March 2007, http://hrw.org/backgrounder/asia/northkorea0307/.
10 See for example, Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention), 189 U.N.T.S. 150, entered into force April 22, 1954, art. 35.