Reforming China’s Refoulement Policy towards North Korea

By: Davis Florick

Korean refugees traveling through China towards Southeast Asia and freedom
Korean refugees traveling through China towards Southeast Asia and freedom

The Chinese government’s policy concerning North Korean refugees represents a serious blight on human security and welfare. Through its ‘refoulement programme’, Beijing has expressed its willingness to send North Korean refugees back to Pyongyang. However, there are five key reasons as to why Xi Jinping’s administration should reconsider this policy.

Firstly, evidence suggests that those refugees who are returned to North Korea by Beijing face imprisonment or even death. Since refoulement was first implemented in 1998, tens of thousands of North Koreans have been forcibly repatriated. Unfortunately for these refugees, political crimes are considered by Pyongyang as a far more grave offence than common criminal acts. Considering the fact that it is a political crime to leave North Korea and the manner in which North Korea treats those who are forcibly repatriated, China’s decision to deport refugees back to North Korea would condemn these individuals to unspeakable suffering and even death. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea has often highlighted the use of persecution, torture, and indefinite detainment of such individuals. In particular, those refugees who have made contact with external parties such as religious or foreign aid groups are sometimes executed as well.  Among the worst atrocities that take place, infanticide is committed against children of mixed races and forced abortions are imposed on women carrying fetuses of mixed races.  Many of these children are of Chinese heritage, yet Beijing’s insensitiveness to such an underlying current of racism in Pyongyang’s policy is surprising.

Second, many North Korean refugees are simply traveling through China to their intended destination of South Korea. Although the precise number of North Korean refugees living in China is unclear, analysts have expressed a widespread belief that most refugees use China as a gateway to South Korea or other parts of the world. While such refugees may initially seek to work in China, strict immigration laws motivate them to seek employment and refuge elsewhere. Other factors that deter North Korean refugees from remaining in China include the language barrier and poor economic conditions in China’s northeastern provinces of Jilin and Liaoning, where most of them reside.  The lack of employment and a steady income have placed many refugees at risk of sexual exploitation and destitution. Due to a lack of options, many are coerced to accept low-wage jobs as farm laborers, household servants, or manufacturing labour. Subsequently, the low cost of North Korean labour results in further tensions among locals who are infuriated with an increased competition for employment. It is probably in China’s best interests to assist these refugees in reaching South Korea, which has expressed a willingness to accept them.

Third, potential security concerns and negative publicity stemming from incidents involving North Korean security personnel and foreign missionaries could be eliminated if refugees were better managed by the government. From an internal security perspective, the movement of North Korean refugees, security agents, foreign aid workers, and various other parties create a politically unstable environment in China. As it stands today, a significant number of undocumented migrants travel from the northeast of China to the Yunnan province in the southwest before making their way to other countries in Southeast Asia. On one hand, North Korean security personnel cooperate with China to capture their fellow countrymen and scuttle them back to the North. On the other hand, some foreign missionaries and other non-governmental organizations operating in China actively help refugees to escape. Such competing interests lend themselves to volatility and potential confrontations. It would make sense for Beijing to dodge this bullet by allowing these refugees to move to their desired destinations.

Fourth, Beijing has an obligation to assist these individuals as a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Recently, Beijing has obtained an elevated role as a global leader, particularly in terms of economic power and political prowess. As Xi Jinping’s  administration accentuates China’s new role within the international system, abiding by human rights commitments would help Beijing establish a positive public image. However, it has largely overlooked its responsibilities pertaining to North Korean refugees. Given its own internal human security challenges with the Uighurs and the presence of political dissidents, providing North Korean refugees safe passage to Seoul seems like a strategic and politically viable solution for Chinese officials.

Finally, by aiding North Korean refugees, Beijing can subtly remind Pyongyang of their asymmetric relationship. North Korea is heavily dependent on trade with China, allowing Beijing to enjoy an asymmetric advantage in the relationship. For instance, China accounted for over 85% of North Korean trade as of 2014. By assisting refugees, the Xi Administration can remind Kim Jong-Un of his vulnerabilities. In fact, Xi Jinping’s government could go against Pyongyang’s wishes by abandoning the refoulement policy if only to demonstrate China’s superiority over the bilateral relationship.

Among the foreign relations challenges confronting Chinese officials today, refoulement is one that can easily be addressed without adversely impacting Beijing in a substantial manner. As Beijing continues its efforts to curb domestic volatility, this is one of the few areas where it can gain a victory on a human rights issue with minimal domestic drawbacks. By reforming its policy on North Korean refugees, China could improve relations with South Korea during this tense period while demonstrating a more responsible approach to human rights in the international community. At a time when Pyongyang seems willing to discard the impact its actions are having on Beijing’s prestige, this measure would remind North Korea of Beijing’s power asymmetry. Any response that North Korea can muster would likely come at the cost of Kim Jong-Un’s economic reforms designed to make his country stronger. The refoulement reform is thus a politically sound strategy for Chinese leaders.


Davis Florick is a strategic policy analyst for the United States Department of Defense, a 2016 WSD-Handa Non-resident Fellow with the Pacific Forum, and a Junior Fellow with the Human Security Centre. He earned a Master’s degree in East-West Studies from Creighton University and specializes in North Korean strategic and human security issues.


Image credit: http://www.libertyinnorthkorea.org/rescue-refugees/

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