North Korea is infamous for having one of the worst human rights records on earth. In recognition of this fact, some human rights advocates dubbed September 24, 2021, as “Save North Korean Refugees Day.”
Crossing the border into China is the only option for most North Koreans trying to escape from North Korea. Yet, when they arrive in China, they face a whole new set of dangers. Most North Korean defectors are women, and most are sold into human trafficking once they arrive in China, often as brides for Chinese men.
Defectors who are caught by Chinese authorities and sent back to North Korea face an even worse fate, as the North Korean regime brutally punishes repatriated defectors. North Korean Freedom Coalition Chair Suzanne Scholte says that “certain torture, imprisonment and potential death” await the defectors upon their forced return to North Korea.
One Christian North Korean defector, Ji Hyeona, has shared her harrowing story of enduring a forced abortion in a North Korean labor camp after she was repatriated (the regime does not recognize half-Chinese children). She said:
Every night, I heard the screams of women going through forced abortions in the prison camp.
I, too, could not avoid this fate, as I was three months pregnant with a half-Chinese, half-Korean baby in my womb.
Where they placed me was not a hospital bed, but it was a desk. And a fearful-looking doctor forcibly pried open my legs and inserted forceps and started killing my baby in my womb by cutting up and shredding my baby.
This is the level of cruelty experienced by repatriated defectors.
The threat posed to religious freedom by these brutal repatriations should not be ignored. Upon their return to North Korea, one of the first questions defectors are asked by authorities is if they met any Christian missionaries. Responding in the affirmative would guarantee time in a labor camp or even a death sentence.
Many North Korean defectors encounter Christianity for the first time while in China, either by South Korean missionaries ministering to them or by seeking help from Chinese churches. For newly converted Christians, returning to North Korea is all the more dangerous. The North Korean regime views religion of any sort as a threat to the Kim regime’s stranglehold on the minds of its citizens—a threat they will brutally suppress.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has become even more isolated and repressive. The U.S. State Department recently issued a statement condemning the North Korean regime for the “increasingly draconian measures [it] has taken, including shoot-to-kill orders at the North Korea-China border, to tighten control of its people under the guise of fighting COVID-19.” With devastating conditions such as these, it is all the more important that China stop repatriating North Korean defectors.
North Korea’s human rights violations, especially those against repatriated defectors, are well-documented. China is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which states that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. With North Korea’s long history of human rights violations, it is wrong for China to repatriate defectors back to North Korea. Instead, Beijing should cooperate with the South Korean government to help bring defectors to South Korea, a safe country that is ready and willing to take them.
Letters sent to President Xi Jinping and Chinese ambassadors have called upon the Chinese government to uphold the human rights of the defectors and pursue a plan to resettle to willing countries, especially South Korea which offers defectors automatic citizenship. Activists are delivering appeals for a change in policy at more than a dozen Chinese embassies located around the world.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic caused a brief pause in China’s repatriation of defectors, they have since resumed, placing thousands of North Korean defectors currently in China at risk. Now more than ever, the Chinese government should be held accountable for sending defectors back to certain punishment in North Korea.