By Kay Seok, North Korea researcher
Published in International Herald Tribune
May 15, 2007
'China hopes to see the DPRK [North Korea], our neighbor, enjoy economic and social progress with its people living happily," said Qin Gang, China's foreign ministry spokesperson, at a recent press briefing. Qin's aspirations for North Korea sound like those of many others who wish to alleviate the suffering of some of the world's most brutalized people.
Upon return, North Koreans are punished under a penal code that defines leaving without permission an act of treason. Yet China continues to routinely repatriate the North Koreans it finds, saying their plight is a "domestic matter" for North Korea. This is in clear contravention of Beijing's duty as a party to the Refugee Convention and Protocol; people who have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home are not to be repatriated. Chinese leaders also refuse to give the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to the border area.
The North Korean government ranks among the world's most repressive, and it respects hardly any basic human rights. Pyongyang denies its citizens the freedoms of information, association, religion, organized political opposition and labor activism. The regime arrests and tortures them arbitrarily and runs large-scale prison camps for those who are accused of having committed a political offense.
In late March, the World Food Program's Pyongyang office warned of yet another severe food shortage in the country, noting crop damage from flooding last summer. North Korea's chronic food shortage, which in the 1990s deteriorated to a famine that killed an estimated one million people, along with the government's severe repression against its citizens, drove thousands of North Koreans across the border into China.
As North Koreans in China continue to face the threat of arrest and forced repatriation, many of them take long and dangerous journeys across China to Southeast Asia, Mongolia and even Western Europe. Yet recently there have been signs that China is more aggressively attempting to arrest even the North Koreans who are simply trying to reach a third country. According to a Bangkok Post article on Dec. 20, Thai officials hinted they would tip off Chinese officials on the whereabouts of North Koreans hiding in China before they could cross the Mekong River to arrive in Thailand, which has long been among the most friendly countries for North Korean refugees.
An article from South Korea's Yonhap News Agency on Feb. 15 tells how Chinese police arrested a 38-year-old South Korean man in China for helping arrange a trip to South Korea for five North Koreans. In similar past cases, activists or brokers helping North Koreans were often charged by the Chinese authorities with human smuggling, and the North Koreans were repatriated. According to Human Rights Watch interviews with recent escapees, the North Korean government has hardened its policy against those who cross the border without state permission, including "first-time offenders."
A 32-year-old man from Samsoo, North Korea, told Human Rights Watch: "Border crossers are sent to regular prison for three years now. They used to be forgiven if they didn't do anything particularly bad while in China."
Another man, from Hoeryong, North Korea, said, "In October this year  there was a state announcement that all border crossers will be sent to regular prison for at least three years. In the past, first-time offenders were sent to forced labor facilities for six months." The difference between a few months and a few years of incarceration can mean the difference between life and death.
If China truly wants North Koreans "living happily," there are some obvious steps it can take. Indeed, some are required by international law.
China should stop arresting and repatriating North Koreans and allow UNHCR to have access to the border area. It should stop arresting and forcibly returning North Korean women who are in de facto marriages with Chinese men. China should also allow the North Koreans safe passage to resettle in South Korea or elsewhere. And it should pressure the North Korean government to cease punishing citizens who flee.
As an emerging power and North Korea's ally, China is in a position to help ensure real economic and social progress. But without those steps, statements like Qin Gang's do nothing except demonstrate how grotesquely indifferent Beijing remains to the plight of ordinary North Koreans.
Kay Seok is North Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch.