Analysts: China’s Repatriation of North Korean Defectors Supports Pyongyang’s Authoritarian Rule

Comments Off on Analysts: China’s Repatriation of North Korean Defectors Supports Pyongyang’s Authoritarian Rule
Analysts: China’s Repatriation of North Korean Defectors Supports Pyongyang’s Authoritarian Rule

By Christy Lee

Originally published by VOA on Jan. 26, 2024

FILE – A North Korean military guard post, upper middle, and South Korean post, bottom, are seen from Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, on Sept. 8, 2023.

WASHINGTON — Human rights experts are dismissing Beijing’s latest claim, made again this week, that North Koreans fleeing into China are not political refugees but only illegal migrants seeking economic opportunities.

Several experts said they see the claim as simply a way of supporting Pyongyang’s authoritarian system, which is similar to China’s own.

“There [are] no so-called DPRK defectors in China. People who illegally entered into China for economic reasons are not refugees,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Wednesday at a press briefing.

His remarks came after South Korea called on Beijing to protect North Korean defectors in China during a Tuesday U.N. meeting examining China’s rights records.

The meeting in Geneva was the fourth review by the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group since February 2009. The council held previous reviews in October 2013 and November 2018.

South Korea’s ambassador to the U.N. office in Geneva, Yun Seong-deok, said Beijing should stop repatriating North Koreans. He also said Beijing should consider making its refugee law comply with the 1951 Refugee Convention.

This was the first time South Korea addressed China at the UPR for its treatment of North Korean defectors. They face harsh treatment, including torture and death sentences, when they are forcibly repatriated, according to Human Rights Watch and the advocacy group Liberty in North Korea.

China is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. This means Beijing is obligated to comply with the principle of nonrefoulement. This “asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom,” according to the convention.

China’s constitution says it “may grant asylum to foreigners who request it on political grounds.”

William Nee, a research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said, “China has consistently refused to set up a screening system” in coordination with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees “to determine whether North Koreans who have fled to China qualify as refugees.”

He continued, “Unfortunately, since the Chinese and DPRK government share the same Leninist system, it is highly unlikely that China would admit that there are political defectors in North Korea because this could indirectly cast doubt on the CCP’s own system.”

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been China’s ruling party since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.

China and North Korea rooted their government systems in communist ideology espoused by the former Soviet Union’s first leader, Vladimir Lenin, who ruled the country with dictatorship and severe control of its population.

Robert King, who served as the U.S. special envoy for North Korea’s human rights in the Obama administration, said Beijing refers to North Korean defectors as “economic migrants” because in its view, North Koreans want to take advantage of its economy.

But, King said, China is “not willing to admit that North Koreans may want to leave North Korea and go to South Korea or elsewhere” because that would suggest there is a problem in North Korea’s political system and pose “concern for communism.”

He said this is a way to protect China’s own authoritarian government and support its restrictions on freedom, human rights and information so that it can “maintain control” of people and power.

Wang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said during the Wednesday press briefing that Beijing “advocated the protection and promotion of human rights through security,” following its own “development path” based on “the socialist nature of China’s human rights cause.”

Roberta Cohen, former deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Carter administration, said, “China fears being held complicit in North Korea’s crimes against humanity, against North Koreans who escape the country.”

She continued, “China’s denial of the situation is an effort to ward off international criminal charges that could well be leveled one day.”

A 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on North Korea’s human rights conditions concluded the regime’s acts, including murder, torture and enslavement, are tantamount to crimes against humanity.

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said that for China to consider North Korean defectors as refugees, it would have to honor its obligation under the 1951 Convention “instead of engaging in blatant breaches of these international human rights instruments it ratified.”

Back to Top