The Status Of Korean Refugees In China

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When an ideology is enforced within a country, it forces citizens to migrate from the native country as is the current situation prevailing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). They will seek asylum in other countries, in this case-China. At times, the obstacles during such person’s journeys influence them to hide their identities in order to survive, protect themselves from persecution or to avoid being returned to the homeland. Only few nations permit refugee status for asylum seekers under the guidelines provided by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

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There are a significant number of asylum seekers who are termed as illegal migrants. This leads them to work in invisible underground industries, which in turn makes them vulnerable to sex trafficking and mercenary employers. While they either get caught or remain invisible, they face challenges in both cases. If their intention is to move to a third countries then they risk access to the outside world. At this juncture, Here transport brokers often give them false assurances and instead smuggle them for human trafficking. With regard to the refugee scenario in China, norms and principles are quite different. Beijing signed the UN Refugee Convention in 1951 and its accompanying protocol in 1967, yet the refugees from North Korea in China are designated as “economic migrants”. Economic migrants are those who leave their country due to dire economic conditions and not due to the fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity. Hence there is only selective acceptance of asylum seekers and the remaining migrants are sent back to their home country. In the case of migrants fleeing DPRK and being forced to return, they face imminent persecution back home. DPRK considers it as state policy, whereby the migrants who are forced to return are subjected to harsh punishments, or even capital punishment.

According to the DPRK’s Ministry for People’s Security, the fleeing migrants are accounted for under a decree which states that defection is a “treachery against the nation”. The exact number of its citizens who attempt to flee the country is not known. However the Human Rights Watch had given statistics stating that 41 refugees were caught last year until July and August 2017, which is a steep Increase when compared to the previous year when it was 51 for the entire year. This includes only the number of refugees who were caught under the “dragnet” approach. Under the “dragnet” approach both the DPRK and China increased its security levels by adding more barbed wire fencing, increasing border guards, expanding CCTV surveillance and increased check posts along the borders to reduce the number of those trying to flee the country. It is noted that either the acceptance or negligence of asylum seekers creates challenges for China. Meanwhile, DPRK fails to cater to the concerns of its persecuted citizens.

This article will focus on the following research questions:

  • What are the challenges faced by DPRK refugees in China?
  • How can China provide assistance while managing the refugees from DPRK?
  • What are the role of Chinese non– governmental organizations and inter-governmental organizations with regard to refugees from DPRK in China?

Introduction

North Korea, officially known as Democratic People Republic of Korea (DPRK) is mired in several international issues. Prominently, the country’ refugee crisis has been a cause for concern since the 1950s, the period of the Korean War. Later in the 1990s it was a famine that escalated the refugee crisis. Presently, the autocratic leadership of Kim Jong Un is causing more severity to the issue. A detailed account of the internal policies of DPRK which are exacerbating the plight of the country’s citizens is presented in the Annexure. DPRK is bordered by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and South Korea (officially the Republic of Korea). Since the Korean War, DPRK has placed more border restrictions with these two countries. One can find more OPs (Observation Posts) along the Demilitarized Zone. North Korean soldiers are honoured with medals and additional vacation upon catching, either dead or alive, DPRK citizens attempting to flee their nation. The “Dragnet Approach” adopted by PRC becomes an additional challenge for asylum seekers from DPRK. Under this approach, the border line between PRC and DPRK are demarcated by barbed fencing, increased border guards, expanded CCTV surveillance and increased checking points. Challenges faced by DPRK refugees within PRCPRC had signed the UN Refugee Convention in 1951 and its accompanying protocol in 1967 for accepting refugees from any part of the world. However Beijing treats defectors from DPRK as ‘Economic Migrants’. Economic migrants are those who leave their country due to dire economic conditions and not due to the fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, etc. Hence only a limited number of North Korean asylum seekers, which includes women and children, are permitted to enter the Chinese State while the remaining are sent back to their native country where they face imminent persecution.

According to the DPRK’s Ministry for People’s Security, the fleeing migrants are accounted for under a decree which states that defection is a “treachery against the nation” . When caught under surveillance, these persons are subjected to harsh punishments, or even capital punishment. Under the guidelines provided by United Nation High Commission for Refugees only the legal migrants can survive in any State under which China also provides facilities to manage refugees.

A significant number of asylum seekers are termed as ‘Illegal Migrants’. As the term itself denotes, these persons cannot hope to survive in any country by exposing their identity. Instead, for survival’s sake, they work in invisible underground industries which in turn makes them vulnerable to sex trafficking or mercenary employers in China. On the other hand, if their intention is to move to third countries, they have to reveal their identity. At this point, Chinese transport brokers give them false assurances and mislead them into human trafficking. Statistics shows that about 80% of the refugees recorded from 2014-2016 were women, while the numbers are expected to increase by 85% in upcoming years. Such women work invulnerable conditions, for example in low-key restaurants, and even face exploitations in the forms of forced marriages.

The role of Chinese non– governmental organizations (NGOs)and inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) with regard to refugees from DPRK There are many NGOs functioning in China which are providing assistance to the asylum seekers from DPRK. They function very effectively by pinpointing the secret routes that the defectors from DPRK would prefer. During the escape, touts often gives fake promises thereby misleading the DPRK asylum seekers to human trafficking. Most of these persons from North Korea use China as a passage to reach South Korea where they are offered special refugee status much more easily when compared to the Chinese scenario. In such cases these NGOs provides funding, accommodation and transport to the asylum seekers. The NGOs in China also actively take part in global forums and organize fund-raising programs to support the DPRK refugees financially. At present, there are about 122 countries who have signed the UN Refugee convention 1951 and its accompanying protocol in 1967 for accepting refugees from any part of the world. But in case of an exodus, the people tend to move to a neighboring countrywhile seeking asylum. Similarly, DPRK migrants preferably choose China rather than South Korea and Japan although the latter two countires are more open to offering a helping hand. This is because the chances of survival become less when the distance of the escape route is more. In such cases IGOS from Japan and South Korea can organize multilateral talks to aid China, a country which is more directly involved in managing DPRK refugees.

China’s plan formanaging a refugee influx from DPRK

The exact number of DPRK citizens who attempt to flee the country is not known. However, the Human Rights Watch has given statistics stating that 41 asylum seekers were caught last year until July and August 2017, which is a steep increase when compared to the previous year when it was 51 for the entire year. This includes only the number of persons who were caught under the “dragnet” approach in ChinaNeverthless, China’s role in providing asylum to the DPRK refugees has become inevitable. China has planned to set up five refugee camps along its border i. e three villages on the Changbai County and two cities located at the northeastern border province of Jilin. Two rivers namely the Yalu and the Tumen which flow across PRC and DPRK become shallow enough to wade across in summer or walk upon when they are frozen during winter. Therefore, these are the locations where attempted migrations are expected to take place in case of an exodus. More over if in case there is going to be any nuclear disaster in future this location i. e Changbai which is about 95 kilometers away from the Punggye-ri (North Korea’s nuclear test site) provides a suitable place for establishing an asylum. These are the perceptions made by international observers. However, Mr. Lu, Spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry mentioned that he has “no idea” about what was stated and discussed above, but he did not deny that Beijing is preparing for such a situation. From an overall point of view, China is expecting North Korea to denuclearize itself in order to carry out any peace talks with South Korea. ConclusionEvery living person in this world has the right to reside in its country irrespective of race, religion, ethinicity, gender, etc. But it is mankind which creates norms and principles to debar certain sections of society from leading a life with basic and decent amenities. The number of refugees worldwide has climbed over the years. About 68 million people are displaced by violence and persecution. But humanitarian support is underfunded. UNHCR has received less funds even to provide basic assistance to refugees . There are only select global actors who take keen interest in bringing back humanity and peace in the international realm.

In the case of DPRK refugees, the possible measures that could be considered for support are as follows. The rest of the nations that signed the UN Refugee Convention 1951 and its accompanying protocol can give their possible assistance to the states that offer asylum to the asylum seekers from DPRK. This is not a part of the protocol but can be taken into consideration so that the burden can be shared. Every nation should feel responsible while educating the local citizens about the refugee facts, so that the displaced persons are not treated as an ‘exotic’ community. The best possible ways to find the root cause in order to stop further displacement of refugees, must be found and acted upon. People must understand the need for security and equality rather than their quest for power which in turn makes millions of people homeless. The fact cannot be ignored that 85 per cent of all refugees and displaced people now live in low and middle-income countries. A refugee, who is forced to leave his or her home, in many cases strives for survival. The trigger behind many of these refugee crises, as seen in DPRK, involves those who are exploiting innocent lives for political advantage. The globe has ability to unite and overcome the crisis, rather than to escalate the conflict. China as an emerging power has a heavy responsibility in diplomatically handling the DPRK issue and hence resolving the refugee crisis.

Annexure

Several psychological factors triggering DPRK’s refugee problem need to be scrutinized, while studying the crisis. The “Songbun” and “Songun” policies of DPRK are considered to be primary reasons for the the country’s people attempting to flee its borders. When this is seen closely, a majority of the asylum seekers are from a middle-class background. “Song bun” is a socio-political classification which has started soon after the Korean War from 1957-1960 to classify the North Korean citizens largely based on their family’s history of perceived loyalty to the DPRK government. The three groups formed under this are –“Core”, “Wavering” and “ Hostile” classes, each having many sub-categories.

Citizens who were close to Kim Il Sung(Former Premier of North Korea), during Japanese rule of the Korean Peninsula during 1910-1945 were given the status of “Core” class. The remaining persons were categorized as either as “wavering” or “hostile” class. Partiality prevailed in all circumstances i. e. the people belonging to “core” class were provided with luxuries whereas lower category members bore the burden of neglect and poverty.

The “Songbun” system is partially inherited. Under the system, the people of the lower categories and their ensuing generations are supposed to be employed only for petty jobs, whereas the highest category’ members become government officials of DPRK. If in case, a child belonging to a poor peasant family has an ambition to become a government official, the rules do not permit the child to shift a career from farming to being a government officer. He or she will not even be permitted to join any of the country’s elite colleges. The other system in DPRK is called “Songun” which means “Military first”, which operates by prioritizing the Korean People’s Army in managing the affairs of State and allocation of resources.

For this purpose, a large part of the country’s economy is invested in the development of a nuclear program and national security. Since its first nuclear test, DPRK has been receiving condemnations from global leaders, as seen as reflected in the economic sanctions. Moreover, the laws enforced in the country make its citizens powerless to take action against the State. Hence the people of DPRK are forced to engage along with every government decision without raising any question.

11 February 2020

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