While the world is rightly focused on China’s (non-)compliance with a series of U.N. sanctions resolutions it voted for, the world must not forget that China is also in flagrant violation of the Refugee Convention when it sends people fleeing persecution back to North Korea, without affording them any opportunity to claim asylum or meet with representatives of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. And after all these years, China certainly knows damn well what happens to the men, women, and children it sends back.
Approximately 30 North Koreans previously caught escaping the country and repatriated from China have been detained for months by Sinuiju state security agents. These individuals have been subject to continual beatings by security agents during interrogation, Daily NK has learned.
“At the state security jail in Sinuiju, some 30 people who were caught in China are being held and interrogated,” a source from North Pyongan Province reported to Daily NK. “Although they were handed over by Chinese police back in April, for months the authorities have been conducting background checks and ordering them to write out their testimonies.”
This news was corroborated by additional sources in North Pyongan Province.
The prisoners are being detained in cells with leaky ceilings and are surviving on cornmeal mixed with grass and sand, and most are lacking enough energy to even sit upright in their cells. During hours of forced labor, if a prisoner collapses and is unable to get up, the other detainees are ordered to beat up that individual, reported the source.
“Although one of the women was beaten up so harshly during interrogation that she can no longer walk, she has been completely neglected and received no medical attention,” the source said, adding that no one is held accountable in the event that a repatriated defector is starved or beaten to death. [Daily NK]
The Daily NK then describes the outcome of the interrogation. First, the Ministry of State Security will repeatedly question each prisoner on why he or she left North Korea. Those who left to earn money for their families might get sent to a re-education camp like Camp 12, where torture, disease, brutal working conditions, and starvation rations all contribute to a high death rate. Some of these prisoners may yet survive long enough to be released into another prison with a lower level of security, also known as “North Korea.”
The worst fate is reserved for prisoners that the authorities conclude fled North Korea to escape to South Korea, to escape political persecution or punishment, or who met with Christians or South Koreans while in China. They will be sent to one of the camps of no return — vast political prison camps like Camp 14, Camp 15, Camp 16, or Camp 25. Naturally, large bribes from a prisoner’s family members can influence the security service’s decision.
Among the individuals apprehended was a woman in her 30s, who was caught living with a Han Chinese man in Shandong Province and forcefully repatriated by the Chinese authorities. She was charged with committing a minor offense but was detained for months. Only after her relatives in the South sent 5,000 USD as a bribe was she sent back to her home in Hyesan, reported the source.
The pervasiveness of security agents openly demanding bribes has infuriated many residents. “The fact that security agents are exploiting the leadership’s extreme hostility towards defectors is contributing to people’s underlying loathing for the regime,” the source noted. [Daily NK]
China insists that all North Koreans it repatriates are “economic migrants,” not refugees. But because North Koreans fleeing hunger and poverty are often kept hungry and poor because the state has secretly classified them as politically “wavering” or “hostile,” it isn’t always clear — even to the North Koreans themselves — that the root cause of the intolerable conditions that drove them to flee is really political.
Furthermore, even when a refugee crosses the border for an initially non-political reason, the fact that she’s certain to be tortured (or sexually assaulted) back in North Korea by itself entitles her to claim refugee status — the technical term is “refugees sur place.” North Koreans facing repatriation to North Korea are also entitled to protection under the Convention Against Torture.
So if China is willfully violating all of these standards of international law, are Chinese authorities also potentially culpable? Yes, as I’ll let the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s 2014 report explain, in a long quote below the fold (click “continue reading,” bottom right of the post).
The general rule with China is that it will violate any rule or standard to the extent it can get away with violating it. It’s long past time to raise not only diplomatic and moral pressure on China for these brutal and unlawful repatriations, it’s also time to target both the North Korean and Chinese security forces for mandatory sanctions under section 104(a)(5) of the NKSPEA. If the Chinese security forces choose to facilitate North Korea’s crimes against humanity, then they should at least do it without the use of America’s banking system. Only a credible threat of accountability will change China’s behavior.
(f) Forced repatriation and refoulement of citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by China 435. Despite the torture, arbitrary
435. Despite the torture, arbitrary imprisonment and other gross human rights violations awaiting forcibly repatriated persons in the DPRK, China pursues a rigorous policy of forced repatriation of DPRK citizens who are in China without proper documentation.
436. Numerous witnesses testified that they were arrested by Chinese officials when it was discovered that they were DPRK nationals and could not present valid papers. In a number of cases, there seemed to be targeted operations to find and apprehend DPRK nationals. Humanitarian activists who worked in the provinces bordering China also indicated that China encouraged its population to denounce DPRK nationals and punished those who harboured them. In March 2013, the Chinese police was reported to have issued a crackdown order in Yanbian on illegal border crossing. This included monetary rewards for information provided to find illegal border crossers, as had apparently been done on previous occasions. The faster the information is provided and the greater the number of illegal border crossers that the information relates to, the higher the supposed reward. Reportedly, the Chinese security agency further hired DPRK citizens to inform on other DPRK nationals planning to flee to the ROK.
437. China also seems to have been taking active measures to ensure that DPRK nationals cannot get access to foreign embassies and consulates to seek protection or asylum. In the case of preventing access to the ROK Embassy or Consulates, this meant DPRK nationals are not able to avail themselves of the opportunity to seek protection from the ROK and be considered for ROK citizenship in accordance with the ROK Constitution and laws.
438. Those apprehended are usually detained in police stations or detention facilities in military installations. Repatriated persons generally report that their treatment in Chinese detention was better than the systematic and gross human rights violations experienced in the DPRK. However, instances of serious human rights violations involving sexual and physical violence by Chinese guards have been reported.
• In 2006, one witness was incarcerated in a detention facility in Tumen, China for seven months. During this time her interrogators beat her and other DPRK citizens with their hands, chairs and clubs in order to obtain the name of the broker who took them to China. Upon her forced repatriation to the DPRK, she was subjected to even worse torture and sexual violence leading her to take the view that “Chinese prisons are heaven compared to DPRK prisons”.
• Another witness, who was arrested within a week of reaching China, was initially sent to an army prison in China. She and other captured women from the DPRK were stripped of their clothes and searched. Female guards conducted the search, but two male guards were also present. Some of the women, who refused to strip naked, were verbally abused and beaten with clubs until they complied.
• A witness was arrested in Shanghai after he unsuccessfully attempted to seek protection from the ROK Consulate. In detention, when he tried to deny being from the DPRK, two Chinese guards turned him upside down against a wall and kicked him in the head. This made him admit to his nationality.
• Another witness was lured to China on the pretext of working on a farm to earn money but was trafficked and sold to a Chinese man who held her captive for three years. She got arrested after escaping from her Chinese “husband”. At that time, she was seven months pregnant. She told the Commission that sexual violence was rife in the Chinese detention facility: “All the guards would hit your breasts as you walked by. If someone who is more attractive is caught, then they would be treated as a sexual play thing. Some girls get pregnant in the prison.” The witness herself was raped by a guard in a detention facility in Tonghua County. She also saw guards taking away other women who were then raped and brought back to the cell. Guards also placed their hands in women’s vaginas to seek money they could steal.
439. Those apprehended might be in detention in China for any length of time from a few days to several months, depending on how long their interrogation takes. Only when a sufficient number of DPRK citizens has been gathered are they taken by force across the border and handed over to the DPRK authorities.
440. Witness testimony also indicates that Chinese officials tasked to implement the repatriation policy are normally aware of the human rights violations that repatriated persons face in the DPRK. In some cases, officials even seemed to show sympathy towards captured DPRK citizens, but had to comply with the repatriation policy nonetheless. Officials appeared to be aware of the conduct of forced abortions on pregnant women repatriated from China.
• One Chinese officer of Korean ethnicity told one witness that he was often so distressed over the numerous people who are repatriated that he ended up berating those who were facing repatriation for allowing themselves to be caught.
• A witness had observed a guard at a detention centre in China suggesting to a pregnant woman to have an abortion in China instead of being subjected to forced abortion once repatriated to the DPRK. The witness who saw the pregnant woman later no longer carrying a child concluded that it was probably “better for her to have it in China, as the sanitary conditions are much better.”
441. In 2005, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and five other Special Rapporteurs of the Human Rights Council conveyed concerns about forced repatriations from China since “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea citizens face detention under cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions, ill-treatment and torture as well as, in extreme cases, summary execution in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. In response, the Chinese Government assured the Special Rapporteurs that they guarantee the lawful rights and interests of foreign citizens within its territory.
442. Contrary to these assurances, China has maintained its policy of forcibly repatriating DPRK nationals. In May 2013, nine DPRK citizens, aged 15-23 years, were forcibly repatriated by the Lao People’s Democratic Republic via China. Both the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the High Commissioner for Refugees conveyed their concern to the Governments of China and Laos, reminding them of the prohibition on non-refoulement under international human rights and refugee law.
443. The obligation not to expel, return (refouler) or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he or she would be in danger of being subjected to torture emerges from article 3 of the Convention against Torture, ratified by China on 4 October 1988. Contrary to article 33 of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which China is also a State party, repatriation typically also places DPRK citizens in a position where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of their religion and/or membership of a particular social group or holding of a political opinion. The obligation not to expel persons to other states where there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be in danger of being subject to gross human rights violations also emerges from the requirements of customary international law.
444. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a small presence in Beijing serving the East Asia and the Pacific sub-region. It conducts refugee status determination under its mandate for individual asylum seekers as a temporary measure until the Government of China creates its own state structures. The Commission finds that China disregards its agreement with UNHCR to allow UNHCR personnel unimpeded access to asylum seekers including those from the DPRK.
445. When the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress adopted the new Administration Law on Entry and Exit in July 2012, it added to domestic law for the first time provisions regarding the treatment of refugees ( article 46). The new rules were to enter into force in July 2013, and were expected to result in the adoption of a comprehensive national refugee framework, including provisions relating to refugee children. The Commission is not aware of any progress in the effective implementation of this law in accordance with China’s international obligations under the Refugee Convention, in particular in relation to DPRK nationals.
446. From the body of testimony and other information gathered by the Commission, it finds that many of the DPRK citizens who cross the border into China do so owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of religion or political opinion. For others, persecution takes the shape of severe socio-economic deprivation because they are members of a low songbun social class. In addition, persons forcibly repatriated to the DPRK are regularly subjected to torture and arbitrary detention and, in some instances, also to rape, enforced disappearance, summary execution and other gross human rights violations. They are also likely to be considered as having committed “treason against the Fatherland by defection” under article 62 of the Criminal Code or under another of the vaguely defined and political “anti-state” or “anti-people” crimes.
447. The Commission therefore finds that many DPRK nationals, deemed by China as mere economic illegal migrants, are arguably either refugees fleeing persecution or become refugees sur place, and are thereby entitled to international protection.
448. There are also reasonable grounds indicating that Chinese officials provide the DPRK authorities with information about persons from the DPRK whom they apprehend, including information about the circumstances and place of their apprehension and contacts they had in China.
• Mr Kim Song-ju, who spoke at the London hearing, said: “When I was repatriated to the DPRK to China, the DPRK agency had already obtained the report provided by the Chinese police, because my escape was planned towards South Korea, if I said anything against the report provided by China, I would be hit; I would be beaten again.”
449. A former official, who worked on border security, stated that when the Chinese authorities repatriate DPRK nationals, they also provide the DPRK authorities with documentation regarding the living circumstances of the repatriated persons in China. The documentation indicated whether the DPRK nationals had simply lived with their “spouses” or have had contact with Christians or ROK nationals including with ROK intelligence agents. Such information was used by the DPRK authorities in determining the fate of those repatriated persons. Those believed to be working with ROK intelligence were executed in the DPRK, whilst those involved with Christian missionaries would be sent to DPRK prison camps without trial. The same witness also indicated that Chinese officials used differently coloured stamps on the documentation handed over to the DPRK authorities based on whether the repatriated persons planned to reach the ROK or not. Another witness also indicated that the Chinese authorities provided their DPRK counterparts with a document concerning her case upon handing her over.
450. A humanitarian activist, who worked extensively on a clandestine basis in both China and the DPRK and spoke to the Commission, indicated that Chinese authorities provided information to their DPRK counterparts and might receive deliveries of lumber in exchange for this information.
451. The reported exchanges of information seem consistent with a protocol concluded between the DPRK’s Ministry of State Security and China’s Ministry of Public Security in 1986 and revised in 1998. Its stated purpose is to maintain national security and social order in the border areas between the DPRK and China. Article 5 of the protocol sets out the agreement for mutual cooperation “on the issue of handling criminals”. It provides, among other things, for each side to be informed of any danger regarding people who disrupt national security and violate social order escaping into the other’s side of the border. Both sides are to provide the other any information or materials received regarding the safety and social order of the other’s side border.
452. In a letter dated 16 December 2013 from the Chair of the Commission addressing the Chinese Ambassador in Geneva, the Commission raised the above concerns with China. The Commission particularly expressed its concern regarding China’s continued policy of repatriating DPRK nationals without affording them the opportunity to have their refugee status determined. This is carried out despite many of them having crossed the border into China owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of religion, and/or membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The Commission also highlighted how persons forcibly repatriated to the DPRK are found to be regularly subjected to torture and arbitrary detention and, in some instances, also to rape, enforced disappearance, summary execution and other gross human rights violations. The Commission further informed the PRC of numerous allegations of forced abortions and infanticide regarding children believed to have been fathered by Chinese nationals.
453. The Commission further sought clarification regarding any measures taken by China to ensure that repatriated persons would not be subjected to such violations upon their return to the DPRK. In reference to the border control-related agreements concluded between China’s Ministry of Public Security and the DPRK’s Ministry of State Security, the Commission conveyed its concern about allegations of information exchange which further aggravates the risk that repatriated DRPK nationals would be subject to torture, enforced disappearance and summary execution, in particular where information conveyed relates to alleged contacts that DPRK citizens may have had with Christian churches or ROK nationals or any attempts they may have made to travel onwards to the ROK.
454. In its letter of reply dated 30 December 2013, China reiterated its position that “DPRK citizens who have entered China illegally do it for economic reasons”, and that they are not refugees. Accordingly, their “illegal entry not only violates Chinese laws, but also undermines China’s border control”. As such, China claimed that it “has the legitimate rights to address those cases [including other illegal and criminal acts committed by some] according to law”. It also claimed that, since DPRK citizens who have been seized by the Chinese public security and border guard authorities have repeatedly entered China illegally, the allegation that repatriated DPRK citizens from China face torture in the DPRK is therefore not true.
489. Despite the gross human rights violations awaiting repatriated persons, China pursues a rigorous policy of forcibly repatriating DPRK citizens who cross the border illegally. China does so in pursuance of its view that these persons are economic (and illegal) migrants. However, many such DPRK nationals should be recognized as refugees fleeing persecution or refugees sur place. They are thereby entitled to international protection. The Commission is of the view that in forcibly returning DPRK nationals, China has violated its obligation to respect the principle of non-refoulement under international refugee and human rights law. In some cases, Chinese officials also appear to provide information on those apprehended to their DPRK counterparts to the known danger of those affected.
490. Discrimination against women and their vulnerable status in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as well as the prospect of refoulement, makes women extremely vulnerable to trafficking in persons. A large number of women are trafficked by force or deception from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea into China or within China for purposes of exploitation in forced marriage or concubinage, or prostitution under coercive circumstances. An estimated 20,000 children born to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea women are currently in China effectively deprived of their rights to birth registration, nationality, education and healthcare because their birth cannot be registered without exposing the mother to the risk of refoulement to the DPRK under the present Chinese policy.
491. The Commission further finds that the DPRK has repeatedly breached its obligations to respect the rights of its nationals who have special ties to or claims in relation to another country, in this case the Republic of Korea, to return there or otherwise enjoy a facility to meet long separated families. In an age where people everywhere take for granted the opportunity to travel and to converse using modern technology, the severe impediments that the DPRK unreasonably places on its people to prevent contact and communication with each other is not only a breach of DPRK’s obligations under international human rights law. It is arbitrary, cruel and inhuman and, particularly, in the circumstances of the cancellation of arrangements previously agreed in relation to reunions of separated families for wholly unpersuasive reason, especially given the advanced ages of the persons concerned.