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The fate of North Korean returnees

Border Crossing

“The only way I’m going back to Korea is in a coffin” said a North Korean woman now living in China. Her story, recently told in the Daily Telegraph, is typical of the experience of a certain category of North Koreans in China. What that category is called depends on your orientation — economic migrants, illegal border crossers, refugees — but one thing is clear: if you get caught by the Chinese police you are likely to get sent back to North Korea, and a less than friendly welcome awaits.

The Telegraph article coincides fortuitously with the publication of a report on forced labour in North Korean prison camps by Anti-Slavery International, the UK-based human rights organisation. ASI’s report, based on interviews with 30 former inmates at North Korean labour camps, focuses on the harsh treatment in those camps. The case studies contain some first hand accounts of some fairly brutal treatments, but the report also notes that things aren’t as bad as they used to be. For example, the practice of forced abortion, particularly where a returnee is bearing a child fathered by a Chinese man, seems no longer to be practised.

But depending on the severity of your crime, treatment can vary. The report notes that returnees who can convince the camp authorities that the reasons for crossing the border were purely economic, and can show that they did some honest agricultural labour in China, fare better than those who are suspected of being Christian, or who were in contact with South Koreans, or who had less “honest” work in a bar.

The report also describes some of the work which inmates of the different types of labour camps are required to perform — tree felling, mining, and opium cultivation — the latter to earn export dollars.

Within China, the migrants have a precarious existence, living in fear of being caught by the Chinese police and repatriated. The interviewee in the Telegraph describes how she had to give the Chinese police all her savings (and more) as the price for letting her stay, and is now reduced to working in a massage parlour where the owner pays off the local police.

The ASI report describes the typical lifestyle of the migrants they interviewed: marrying or living with a Chinese farmer (often old or handicapped — someone unable to find a Chinese wife, who are in short supply). They provide useful benefits to the Chinese rural economy and, arguably, as a result there is a small amount of evidence that the attitude of the Chinese authorities to them is getting a little more lenient — for example it is becoming easier for them to register their Chinese-born child so that the child has legal status within China. But the Korean women themselves are still vulnerable to being sent home if caught by an unsympathetic official.

Despite the risks and insecurities many find their life in China preferable to the life back in North Korea: even after release from the detention camp, former border-crossers can be ostracised or harassed within their local community thereafter.

The report argues that the fate that awaits an illegal border-crosser on their return is justification for treating such people as refugees sur place ((A person who is not a refugee when he or she left the country of origin, but who becomes a refugee at a later date)). Such a status, if recognised by the Chinese authorities, would permit access by the UNHCR so that it can “seek a safe and permanent solution to their situation”.


Pictured above: Sign on the North Korea / China border saying “Illegal border crossing is punishable by law”.

One thought on “The fate of North Korean returnees

  1. Sign on the North Korea / China border saying “Illegal border crossing is pubishable by law”.

    >> should be : Accommodating, giving financial aid and employing illegal immigrants are prohibited

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