Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 5

Ever since famine struck North Korea in 1995, China has been on the receiving end of a massive influx of Korean refugees. Pyongyang’s failure to feed its own people has driven a starving population across a dangerous 850-mile border in search of food. Given the fortified zone dividing South and North Korea, the Sino-DPRK border is the best alternative route for these hungry masses. The exact number of North Korean refugees in China is open to debate, ranging from the Chinese government’s conservative estimate of 10,000 to Seoul’s calculation of between 10,000 and 30,000. Humanitarian organizations put the figure as high as 300,000. The refugees’ usual hideouts are the Sino-DPRK border regions densely populated by ethnic-Chinese Koreans, such as the Liaoning and Jilin provinces, Dandong, Tumen and Yanji. The October 2004 police crackdowns in Beijing suggest that a substantial number of refugees are in hiding in the capital area as well.

The constant fear of being apprehended by local police makes China a less desirable place for the escapees to settle down. Most of them hope to move to South Korea because of existing family ties, linguistic homogeneity and cultural affinity. The Seoul government’s engagement policy also helps make the settlement process less strenuous. The refugees often take diverse routes to South Korea. Some undertake the arduous journey to China’s neighboring countries, such as Mongolia, Vietnam and Thailand, before reaching their final destination. Once arriving in these countries, the refugees declare themselves to be political asylum seekers, and the South Korean diplomatic mission begins processing their requests accordingly.

Others take more drastic measures. They attempt to gain illegal entry into foreign diplomatic compounds in China, such as embassies, foreign schools, and consulates, and then request political asylum there. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Life Funds for North Korean Refugees often work very closely with these refugees, sometimes informing the foreign news media of such plans prior to the actual attempt, in order to publicize and dramatize their plight and thereby pressure Beijing into permitting their release to South Korean authorities.

In responding to the rising influx of escapees, China has either shown a friendly face or come down with an iron fist, depending on the situation. When it comes to the breaching of foreign diplomatic compounds, for example, Beijing has been generally lenient. Unless they are caught by the Chinese security police prior to entry, those who manage to find a safe haven in foreign embassies have a good chance of finding asylum in South Korea. At the same time, the Chinese government has also employed punitive measures against refugees. The police actively hunt down North Korean escapees, primarily in the most susceptible border areas, such as Jilin and Dandong. Beijing also offers cash rewards to those who turn in escapees, while those suspected of helping the escapees can be fined up to $3,500.

However, the continuing influx of North Korean refugees is pushing Beijing to address the current situation in a more straightforward manner – but this will not be an easy matter. Beijing naturally wants to maintain its increasing economic ties with Seoul, now its third largest trading partner. And while Beijing wants to prove its respect for human rights to the international community, it does not wish to damage its alliance with Pyongyang, with whom it shares a mutual security pact.

Moreover, China has enough social woes of its own, and it does not need any additional, externally-imposed burdens. The list of China’s domestic problems ranges from a rapidly deteriorating environment, a growing number of internal migrants and “floating unemployed”, a worsening labor-management situation, an increasing imbalance in the boy-girl birth ratio, rampant corruption and an increasing divorce rate. Under the circumstances, Beijing cannot welcome another source of strain by having to deal with a massive influx of famished people from its neighboring country. Beijing is therefore faced with several dilemmas at once.

Defining North Koreans in China: “Refugees” or “Illegal Economic Migrants”?

Currently, Beijing designates North Korean escapees as “illegal economic migrants”. The United Nations, along with the majority of legal experts, regard them as refugees, who should be granted refugee status on the grounds of refoulment, as returnees to North Korea are known to suffer from severe repercussions, including capital punishment. Labeling North Korean escapees as “illegal economic migrants” goes beyond a simple difference in preferred choices of words. It is the conscious byproduct of Beijing’s carefully calculated effort to evade any legal or political responsibilities for these people.

By designating the escapees to be “illegal economic migrants”, Beijing exempts itself from any moral and ethical obligations to these persons. Police crackdowns, cash rewards for turning in escapees, and levying hefty fines on citizens who aid them are therefore legitimate and justifiable.

Beijing’s definition has been particularly tragic for North Korean women who comprise two-thirds of all escapees. North Korean women hiding in China are often forced into violent marriages or sold into sexual slavery, but since they are “illegal economic migrants”, they are stripped of any legal recourse. These women most often must endure rape, assault, torture, or other forms of violence for the sake of survival. Fear of being turned in by their spouses or pimps further locks them into their situation.

The People’s Republic’s rising economic and military power entails higher expectations of its moral leadership in the region, and yet, its history is riddled with bloody sanctions against anti-regime challenges. The memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre have not faded, nor has Beijing’s decades-old brutal crackdown in Tibet.

Complicating this issue, Beijing has been voicing concerns over the unilateral imposition of universal human rights on non-Western contexts. The advocacy on individual rights, for instance, has been deemed a Western invention with limited validity in more group-oriented Confucian cultural contexts like that of China. Beijing, for instance, has never supported the Bush administration’s elevation of human rights as a core political agenda, and it kept its silence on Secretary of State Rice’s naming of the six “outposts of tyranny” – North Korea, Cuba, Myanmar, Iran, Belarus, and Zimbabwe.

At the same time, winning the bid to host the 2008 Olympics was a great boost to China’s national pride. It was a vindication of China’s economic accomplishments and recognition of its emergence as a respected power in the world. Beijing cannot afford to tarnish its image as the violator of human rights because of the North Korean escapees. Such negative images would damper the nation’s newly celebrated wealth, status, and leadership.

Appeasing Pyongyang and Preventing the Regime Collapse

China obviously wishes the North Korean refugee problem would simply go away, but it has grown too big to ignore. In trying to deal with this issue, however, Beijing is trapped between encouraging Pyongyang to reform its economic practices, in order to ease the influx, and at the same time working to prevent regime collapse. Beijing tries to appease and prod North Korea toward reform by aligning with it. Assigning “refugee” status to the North Korean escapees would be an admission that Kim Jong Il’s leadership is politically repressive and is therefore a nonstarter.

At the same time, in order to prevent further mass exodus from North Korea into its territory, Beijing needs to make sure that the current regime does not collapse abruptly, causing chaos in the region. That would be a major disaster for its booming economy. During the latter half of 2004, the Chinese military deployed its elite troops along the Sino-DPRK frontier in order to tighten the border. Beijing’s provision of oil and food is another way to sustain the failing regime. China is also the third largest benefactor of humanitarian aid to Pyongyang, behind Seoul and Washington.

Since Pyongyang’s February admission of possessing nuclear weapons, China is under even greater pressure to bring North Korea back to the negotiation table. As the host of the six-party talks involving Pyongyang, Seoul, Washington, Tokyo and Moscow, Beijing bears the primary responsibility of persuading North Korea to engage more actively with the international community. Beijing needs to make it clear to Pyongyang that any efforts to generate financial gains by deploying intimidation tactics will not work with the Bush Administration, whose primary goal is to use the six-party framework to denuclearize North Korea, and bring Pyongyang to the international negotiation table so that the regional community can monitor its behavior.

Beijing knows that it can play an important role as mediator between Pyongyang and other regional powers. Pyongyang’s nuclear games can be an opportune moment for Beijing to elevate its status in the international arena. But, in order to maintain the upper hand in the coalition of fraternity, China cannot afford to lose its alliance with North Korea. As much as Pyongyang needs Beijing as its sole ally, Beijing needs to stay in close touch with Pyongyang as the mediator and leader of the six-party framework. Sadly, in this complicated equation of security and human rights, the plight of North Korean refugees and the debate as to their human rights continues to fall between the cracks.

Dr. Mikyoung Kim is a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Portland State University.