IV. Children Denied Education

In China, every citizen must be registered under a household registration system called hukou. Details are printed on a passport-like document (called hukou) that has information on the “head of the household” on the first page and those of his or her family members on following pages. The document includes biographical data, such as gender, relationship with the head of the household, date and place of birth, ethnicity, current address, previous address, citizen ID number, height, blood type, education level, occupation, and work address. Obtaining hukou for children of Chinese citizens costs next to nothing.

Children without hukou have no legal access to education, as schools require a copy of the hukou document for admission and continued schooling. Most North Korean women who have had children with Chinese men in de facto marriage relationships do not have resident status in China. Human Rights Watch learned of a number of cases in which, after their mothers were repatriated, children were left entirely without parental care, their fathers either unwilling or unable to take care of them.

Children with North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers

Many children with North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers cannot go to school because their Chinese fathers do not obtain hukou for them, usually because they fear that doing so would lead to the arrest and repatriation of their partners. A 42-year-old woman from Musan, North Korea, told Human Rights Watch:

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 resident status, and neither does my son. It really worries me that he can’t go to school.11

A 32-year-old woman from Gilju, North Korea, offered a similar story. She moved to China in 1998, and has been living with a Chinese man, with whom she has an eight-year-old daughter.

All I want is to live without constantly worrying that they will arrest me and send me back to North Korea. My life is here in China now. It also makes me sad that my daughter is not attending school.12

A 39-year-old woman from Gowon, North Korea, left her Chinese “husband” because of abuse. She explained how human traffickers caught her immediately after she crossed the border a few years ago, and sold her together with her son (now seven years old) to a Chinese farmer. He didn’t speak Korean, while she didn’t speak Chinese, so they had serious communication problems.

The man who bought me was a violent person. He used to beat me with anything he could find: sticks, shoes, whatever. I ran away, because I got tired of being beaten up.13

Although her son is now of school age, he does not attend school because he does not have hukou, she said.

In some cases, in a desperate attempt to enable children to go to school, some parents or guardians have had to resort to bribery, lying to school officials, borrowing or purchasing a Chinese child’s hukou, or even using fake hukou. But these are illegal and unreliable measures.

BB, a nine-year-old boy with a Chinese father and a North Korean mother, entered the first grade in 2007, thanks to a missionary who made an arrangement to pay school officials. The missionary, a Chinese citizen of Korean descent, told Human Rights Watch:

Schools check on the hukou status of their students several times per year. Even if you get away with not submitting it the first time, you can’t get away with it every time. I am afraid the school authorities will eventually expel him.14

The missionary also said such a temporary arrangement costs several thousand renminbi each year, in addition to tuition, transportation, and other regular costs. He said:

Considering that a common farmer in this area makes only about 1,500 to 3,000 RMB profit each year, 15 most of them cannot afford to pay such extra money.

Some Chinese fathers obtain hukou for their children after their North Korean partners are repatriated or have left. Depending on the children’s age at the time of departure, thechildren already may be years behind in school at that point.

The tragic reality for such children is that they obtain nationality—and the chance to go to school—only by losing their mothers. SS, a nine-year-old boy, began attending school in 2007. He obtained his hukou after his mother was arrested and repatriated to North Korea.16

The Chinese father of MH, an eight-year-old girl, is in the process of obtaining hukou for his daughter. Her North Korean mother was arrested and repatriated to North Korea in 2005. He told Human Rights Watch:

Where I live, if you want to obtain hukou 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.17

Meanwhile, HH, age six, lives with her father and grandmother. Her mother left earlier in 2007 to go to South Korea. Her father, a 36-year-old Chinese man, obtained hukou for his daughter after his partner left. He told Human Rights Watch:

We made the decision [that my partner should leave] because of rumors that the government would crack down on North Koreans in China ahead of the [2008 Beijing] Olympic Games. We could not afford to have her sent back to North Korea. Last time I heard from her was November 2007. She said she was at an immigration detention center in Bangkok, waiting for her transfer to Seoul.18

HR, a six-year-old girl, lives with her Chinese father and grandparents. She obtained hukou after her North Korean mother was arrested and repatriated in 2005. HR’s family said they have not heard from her mother since. When asked about her mother, she hung her head and said in a barely audible voice that her mother had gone to the police station and never returned.19

For TH, age six, it also took the splitting up of her parents to obtain hukou. Her Chinese father lacked a stable job, and often argued with her North Korean mother over it. Her mother told her she was leaving for South Korea, but she heard later that her mother was living with another Chinese man.20

In some cases, even with the North Korean mother absent, it is still impossible for the child’s guardian to obtain hukou for the child. A 46-year-old Chinese woman of Korean descent who was taking care of her eight-year-old nephew told Human Rights Watch:

Last year, I tried to obtain hukou for him. I was told I had to pay the police 2,000 RMB and submit a statement saying his mother was arrested and repatriated, signed by three witnesses. But his mother had not been arrested or repatriated. She’s still living in China, just in hiding. So I couldn’t obtain hukou for him. Without hukou, you can’t go to school. I am really worried about his education.21

Children from North Korea

Most North Korean children in China, especially pre-teens, come to China with their parents. Unlike those with Chinese fathers and North Korean mothers, it is almost impossible for them to obtain hukou, even if their mothers live with Chinese men, as such relationships are not officially recognized as marriage. None of the North Korean children interviewed for this report had hukou, or any other legal identity.

If the parents of North Korean children are arrested and repatriated to North Korea, the children are left in China without any parental care. Some end up living with missionaries or other Chinese guardians.

HH, a 12-year-old girl from North Korea, said her mother disappeared right after they arrived in China in late 2004. She was then sent to an orphanage and did not hear from her mother again. Later, she moved in with her current guardians. She began attending school only last year under an arrangement her guardians managed to broker with school officials by bribing them.22

KH, an 11-year-old boy from North Korea, told Human Rights Watch a similar story. His mother disappeared immediately after they crossed the border together in 2004.

We crossed the [Yalu] river in the evening, and stayed over at a Chinese man’s house that night. The next morning, my mother was gone. Nobody told me where she went. The Chinese man sent me to an orphanage. I never heard from my mother again.23

KH’s guardians, the couple who took him from the orphanage, are sending him to school by bribing school officials. He said his friends do not know he is from North Korea.

I don’t talk about North Korea. If I did, the police would come to arrest me and send me back to North Korea.

HL, a 13-year-old North Korean girl living with a missionary couple, began attending school in 2007 by borrowing a Chinese girl’s hukou.

I am afraid they will find out I am North Korean, and kick me out of school. Because I don’t have hukou, I started school only this year, and I am four years older than my classmates, who are all Chinese.24

UC, a 16-year-old girl, ran away from her abusive, heavy drinking stepfather in North Korea to go to China in 2005. Shortly afterwards, acquaintances told her that her entire family was sent to a prison camp after being caught attempting to escape. Having no family to go back to, she began living with an older Chinese woman, who bought a deceased Chinese girl’s hukou so that she could go to school.

If I went back to North Korea, I would starve. My relatives were all starving. But the Chinese police will arrest and send me back if they find out I am North Korean.25

11 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, January 5, 2008.

12 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, January 5, 2008.

13 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, November 28, 2007.

14 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, November 27, 2007.

15 RMB is the common abbreviation for the Chinese currency, the renminbi. At exchange rates in effect in early March, 2008, the 1,500-3,000 RMB sum equates to U.S.$208-U.S.$417, and 197,000-394,000 South Korean won.

16 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, January 2, 2008.

17 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, January 3, 2008.

18 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, November 30, 2007.

19 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, November 29, 2007.

20 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, November 30, 2007.

21 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, January 6, 2008.

22 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, December 1, 2007

23 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, November 28, 2007.

24 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, November 26, 2007.

25 Human Rights Watch interview, Yanbian Prefecture, China, November 26, 2007.