China's Forced Repatriation of North Korean Defectors

By: Abbie Carver

The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (“North Korea” or “DPRK”) is a totalitarian state, home to 24.5 million people, dependent on a cult of personality, and accused of systemic human rights abuses.[1] Its current leader, Kim Jong-un, is the third supreme leader in the Kim dynasty.[2] The outside world knows little about North Korea, as press and broadcasters are all under direct state control and are only allowed to produce flattering reports about the country and of King Jong-un.[3]

The human rights concerns surrounding the DPRK are abundant.[4] Tens of thousands of North Korean civilians have been abducted by the North Korean government; family members of “dissidents” have disappeared; North Koreans sent to prison camps experience torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (many fall ill or die soon after entering custody); citizens must obtain permission to travel within the country as well as abroad; women are trafficked and forced into marriages; and millions of North Koreans face extreme hunger or starvation.[5]

Over the past few decades, thousands of North Koreans have attempted to flee the country.[6] Many of these people have sought refuge in China.[7] In 2013, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) investigated the human rights abuses concerning North Korea and concluded that China was facilitating the DPRK’s crimes against humanity by forcibly returning tens of thousands of North Koreans to the DPRK where they would be “subjected to inhuman treatment and punishment in the form of ‘imprisonment, execution, torture, arbitrary detention, deliberate starvation, illegal cavity searches, forced abortions[8] and other sexual violence.”[9] China responded to the report, arguing that North Koreans were entering China “illegally” as mere “economic migrants” and must be deported, and that those returned would not be punished (even though it is a criminal offense to leave the DPRK without permission).[10]         

Forcibly returning individuals to a country where they will be victims of crimes against humanity violates China’s obligations under international human rights and refugee laws.[11] China ratified the UN’s Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and acceded to the Refugee Convention in 1982.[12] Signatories to the Refugee Convention and its Protocol are banned from “refoulement,” which means returning refugees to a country where they will fact persecution.[13] Although it is a party to the UN Refugee Convention, China refuses to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to access North Koreans in the country to determine the status of North Korean defectors.[14] In addition, China continues to argue that North Korean defectors are “economic migrants” — not refugees, and thus, that China does not have to abide by the protections of the Refugee Convention.[15]

In 2013, China adopted a Exit-Entry Administration Law in June 2012, which allows public security authorities to issue ID certificates to refugees and refugee applicants.[16] However, refugee and immigrant concerns remain a law priority for China.[17] China largely maintains an anti-immigrant sentiment[18] and lacks the institutions to support immigrants and refugees.[19] The Government of China does not provide assistance to refugees, such as food, shelter, health, education, or social services.[20] China also maintains a very narrow path to permanent residency immigration status.[21] As of 2013, only 7,300 out of over 600,000 non-citizens living in China had permanent residence.[22] Further, becoming a citizen of China is extremely rare.[23]

At the very least, the UN urges China to begin implementing the international legal principle of non-refoulement, which forbids forced return of victims of persecution to their persecutor.[24]


[1] North Korea country profile, BBC (March 8, 2017),

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] See North Korea Human Rights, Amnesty International USA, (last visited April 2, 2017).

[5] Id.

[6] Roberta Cohen, Chinas Forced Repatriation of North Korean Refugees Incurs United Nations Censure, Brookings Inst. (July 7, 2014),

[7] Id.

[8] The DPRK carries out forced abortions on female forced repatriates because it is believed that the women may have become impregnated by Chinese men. Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Liang, Pan, Why China Isnt Hosting Syrian Refugees, Foreign Policy (Feb. 26, 2016),

[13] Anna Fifield, China urged not to repatriate North Koreans caught trying to escape, The Washington Post (Nov. 21, 2015),

[14] Fears for nine forcibly returned from China to North Korea, Amnesty International (Feb. 28, 2012),,50ffbce576f,50ffbce5796,4f50aad32,0,,,CHN.html.

[15] See Lee Yeon Cheol, UN Urges China to Stop Repatriation of North Korean Defectors, VOA Asia (Dec. 15, 2015),

[16] Pan, supra note 12.

[17] See United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), The People’s Republic of China: Fact Sheet (2015) (hereinafter China Refugee Fact Sheet).

[18] Anti-immigrant sentiment may be due any number of factors, including a political ideology which embraces non-interference in international affairs or to an active attempt to control a growing population. Pan,  supra note 12.

[19] Id.

[20] China Refugee Fact Sheet, supra note 14, at 2.

[21] Pan, supra note 12.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.