China resumes deportation of refugees back to North Korea

Monday, July 26, 2021

North Korea (orange) and China (green) on a map.
Image: Aridd.

In an article published by Human Rights Watch late last week, over 1100 North Koreans living in China are described as being at risk of being sent back to North Korea. According to the article, around 50 North Korean defectors and escapees were recently sent back to their place of origin following their arrest by Chinese police and border authorities.

An anonymous witness told Radio Free Asia that "The Dandong customs office was opened just for today and they [Chinese border authorities] sent about 50 North Korean escapees back to North Korea on two buses." The witness also added that "dozens of police officers lined up in front of the customs office to block public access and ensure nobody was filming."

As a reaction to the sudden spread of COVID-19, North Korea closed its borders totally, which halted the repatriation of defectors. The recent repatriation was the first of its kind since January 2020, when North Korean authorities closed the Sino-Korean border as a way to protect the country from the pandemic. Repatriations of this kind were held routinely for the defectors who had crossed the Yalu and Tuman rivers into China before the pandemic occured.

This repatriation action caught the eye of the United States' Department of State, with an official spokesperson saying that "We are particularly concerned by recent reports that nearly 50 North Koreans were forcibly repatriated." The spokesperson said that the United States urges China to "fulfill its international obligations as a party to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol and the UN Convention Against Torture."

Radio Free Asia's article cites that some among the 50 repatriated were soldiers and pilots who had served in the North's Air Force.

Returning such refugees to North Korea, where they face imprisonment and torture from the authorities, is a violation of the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention, 1967 Protocol and the UN Convention against Torture. According to the article by Human Rights Watch, at least 1170 North Korean people are held in various prisons in China's Jilin and Liaoning provinces, where they face deportation after being charged with criminal offenses.

Both countries maintain a friendly relationship, with both leaders having exchanged greetings on July 11, as reported by state newspaper Rodong Sinmun. A 1986 bilateral border protocol signed by both nations warrants the deportation of any and all defectors and other North Koreans illegaly staying in China.

According to data reported by South Korea's Ministry of Unification, only two defectors from the North reached South Korea between April and June of this year, the lowest number ever recorded since the Ministry started recording the inflow of defectors. Such a decrease in the amount of defectors is mainly being attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, as North Korea entirely stopped people from leaving or entering the country, while still claiming to have no cases of the virus.

North Korean defectors often transit through China to reach either South Korea or another safe country, as the Sino-Korean border is easier to cross than the North-South border. The closest defector-friendly country accessible by land to defectors is the South-East Asian country of Vietnam.