January 12, 2018

Protecting North Korean Refugees: Written Statement by Roberta Cohen, HRNK Co-Chair Emeritus


House Foreign Affairs Committee

Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations


My appreciation to Congressman Christopher Smith and Ranking Member Karen Bass for holding this hearing to maintain a spotlight on North Korean refugees and their need for international protection. The world community’s preoccupation with massive movements of people fleeing war-torn countries has often overlooked the plight of smaller groups of refugees in desperate straits. The North Korean case is one such situation that should warrant international attention because of the extraordinary cruelty to which the asylum seekers and refugees are subjected. Unlike most governments, North Korea has made it a criminal offense to leave its country without permission, thereby preventing its citizens from exercising their internationally recognized right to seek asylum and become a refugee. Second, those who do try to escape face increasing obstacles -- electrified fences, enhanced border patrols, exorbitant bribes, and traffickers. Only 1,418 managed to reach South Korea in 2016. Third, if caught and returned, North Korean refugees are subject to systematic and brutal punishment, which the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) has found to constitute crimes against humanity.[1]  Fourth, neighboring China collaborates with the DPRK in arresting and turning back North Koreans despite the abusive treatment they routinely suffer at the hands of North Korea’s security forces.[2]

In his 2017 report to the UN General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK, Tomas Ojea Quintana, drew attention to the “deplorable conditions” in the holding centers near the border with China where repatriated North Koreans are confined before being sent off to reeducation or other camps for extended punishment. Women constitute the majority of those who flee and of those returned and are “the target of violent practices.”[3] During interrogation and detention, they are subject to beatings, torture, and sexual and gender-based violence. Those found to be pregnant are reported to have their pregnancy terminated by force, but “the shame and secrecy attached to this practice make precise statistics on cases of forced abortion difficult to collect.”[4] When placed in reeducation through labor camps and other prison facilities, forcibly repatriated North Koreans are deliberately denied adequate food and medical attention, and are subject to forced labor and sexually abusive treatment.

To North Korea, those who leave without permission are criminal offenders, even traitors to the Kim regime. To United Nations human rights bodies, North Koreans who leave illegally are potential refugees. They flee persecution as well as the socioeconomic deprivation emanating from the songbun system of social and political classification to which the government subjects them. But even if they were not refugees when they left North Korea, they become so (that is, refugees sur place) because of the well-founded fear of persecution and punishment they face upon return. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2017 called on North Korea to decriminalize illegal border crossing, and because of the high number of women forcibly repatriated, to  ensure that the women “are not subjected to invasive body searches, sexual violence and forced abortions, and that their rights to life and to a fair trial are respected.”[5] It further called upon North Korea to allow international organizations “access to all women’s detention facilities.”[6]

UN bodies have also sent warnings to China, which the UN COI found to be enabling North Korea’s crimes. A letter signed by COI Chair, Justice Michael Kirby, and appended to its 400-page report, warned Chinese officials that they could be found to be “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity” by sharing information with North Korea’s security bodies and turning back North Koreans to conditions of danger.[7] It challenged China’s claims that North Koreans entering China illegally are economic migrants who must be deported, and that those returned are not subject to punishment.

On occasion China has allowed North Koreans to proceed to South Korea, but these cases are few and far between.[8] Over the years China has tolerated thousands of North Koreans residing illegally in its country, some ‘married’ to Chinese men, but the North Koreans have no rights, are vulnerable to exploitation and bribes, constantly fear deportation and may be expelled. The UN Committee against Torture (CAT) in 2016 described China as practicing a “rigorous policy of forcibly repatriating all nationals of the DPRK” on the grounds that they cross the border illegally for economic reasons.[9] It called on China to set up a refugee determination process for North Koreans and allow UNHCR access to border areas. The CAT noted that it had 100 testimonies showing that North Koreans forcibly returned were “systematically” subjected to torture and ill-treatment and recommended UNHCR monitoring of North Koreans forcibly returned to assure that they are not subject to torture.

When UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited China in 2006 as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he told Chinese officials that forcibly repatriating North Koreans without any determination process and where they could be persecuted on return stands in violation of the Refugee Convention. UNHCR also proposed a special humanitarian status for North Koreans to enable them to obtain temporary documentation, access to services and protection from forced return. To the refugee agency, North Koreans are deemed “persons of concern,” meriting humanitarian protection.  

To date, there has been little progress in persuading North Korea or China to cooperate with the international community. Nonetheless, China’s more critical stance toward North Korea of late as well as reports of its making refugee contingency plans in the event of a crisis in North Korea,[10] might lead to more open discussions, the relaxing of some of its policies and the possible modification of others.

The following recommendations are offered with a view to promoting protection for North Korean refugees.


First, an overall international strategy is needed for dealing with the refugee issue. To this end, the United States should propose a multilateral approach to the North Korean refugee situation. Just as international burden sharing has been introduced for other refugee populations, so should it be developed here. The North Korean refugee situation is not an economic migrant question for China and North Korea to decide alone according to their own agreements. Other countries are profoundly affected, in particular South Korea whose Constitution offers citizenship to North Koreans and already houses more than 31,000 North Koreans who have fled over the past two decades. Countries in East, Southeast and Central Asia, East and West Europe, and North America have admitted thousands upon thousands, of North Korean refugees. Working together with UNHCR, a multilateral approach could be designed based on principles of non-refoulement and human rights protection. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has extensive experience with this and other refugee situations, should be asked to initiate the process.

Second, the United States, South Korea and allied governments should make China’s treatment of North Korean refugees a high priority in their bilateral dialogues with China. They should make known their willingness to admit North Koreans who cross the border without permission and should call on China to allow UNHCR to begin a determination process so that North Koreans could apply for refugee status and remain temporarily in China while their requests are being processed. The United States and its allies should remind China that more than 150 governments in the General Assembly have called upon China as a country neighboring North Korea to cease the deportation of North Koreans because of the terrible mistreatment they endure upon return. Chinese officials should be encouraged to build on the instances where China has allowed North Koreans to leave for the South, increase such cases and introduce a moratorium on forced repatriations on humanitarian grounds to remain in effect until such time as North Korea ceases its persecution and punishment of those repatriated. A new approach would enhance China’s international standing, encourage other states in Asia to uphold international norms, and exert influence on North Korea to modify its practices. China for its part will need to be assured that the United States and other countries are not seeking to forcibly reunify Korea, destabilize the North and expand United States influence. Certainly, the most effective way to reduce the number of North Koreans going into China is not for the Chinese and North Koreans to push back North Koreans but for the DPRK to begin to provide for the well-being and security of its population.

Third, the United States should expand its practice of identifying and sanctioning North Korean as well as Chinese officials and offices involved in forced repatriations and make them aware that they could be held accountable in future trials. [11] Special Rapporteur Ojea Quintana recently observed that “The more the international community has insisted on the necessity to seek justice…, the more the [North Korean] authorities have seemingly opened to a conversation with human rights mechanisms on ways to fulfil their obligations...”[12] In response to North Koreans’ fear of accountability, he described reports, albeit unconfirmed, of improved practices in detention facilities, including toward pregnant women.[13] North Korea also responded for the first time to a United Nations human rights inquiry about returned refugees by providing some statistics. It claimed that only 33 North Korean women out of 6,452 returned from 2005 to 2016 had been punished.[14] This small number of course contradicted the findings of many UN-commissioned reports that spoke of the routine punishment of tens of thousands returned. But North Korea’s engagement in the conversation shows that international demarches have had some effect. It is important therefore for the United States to strongly support the collection of evidence about forcibly returned North Koreans and make sure that the Seoul office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which is tasked with documenting information with a view to accountability, has sufficient resources and staff to perform its functions effectively. In particular, the United States should contribute to the hiring of international criminal justice experts to review existing evidence, including on forced repatriations, and to promote the effective working of a central information and evidence repository to be set up in 2018 to facilitate future prosecutions. It should contribute the names and information it has collected to the central repository.

Fourth, the United States should call on the international humanitarian organizations it funds to request, when appropriate, international access to detention facilities and reeducation camps that house political prisoners, among these, significant numbers of forcibly repatriated women. Such an opportunity arose in September 2016 when a typhoon struck the northeast and flooded not only schools, clinics, roads and agricultural lands, but also a reeducation through labor camp, Kyo-hwa-so Number 12, housing some 5,000 prisoners, including up to 1,000 forcibly repatriated women.[15] HRNK provided the UN with satellite imagery of the flooded camp, which the Secretary-General included in his report to the General Assembly,[16]  but the humanitarian agencies did not try to help the persons inside. It appeared they were reluctant to antagonize North Korean officials and possibly undermine humanitarian operations for other flood victims, despite the fact that information was available to them showing that the women and other prisoners in the camp were given starvation rations, lacked medical care and were subject to exploitation and forced labor.[17] The humanitarian organizations, it should be noted, had some leverage in this case because North Korea had requested the aid and had to listen to their views. While North Korea could have turned down the request, at least the question of entering a flooded camp and reaching its vulnerable people would have been on the table as a legitimate ‘ask’ to be revisited in future.

It is important that the United States make known to the World Food Program, UNICEF and other humanitarian agencies that they must stand up for all people at risk, not just those North Korea might choose to assist, and use the leverage they have to generate meaningful dialogue on the human rights principles central to humanitarian work. Failure to do so will condone the Kim regime’s persecution and marginalization of the people it considers disloyal, contrary to the principles upon which humanitarian organizations are founded. Building upon General Assembly resolutions that call on North Korea to grant unimpeded humanitarian access to all affected persons, including those in detention facilities and prisons,[18] the United States should reinforce the recent call made by the UN Special Rapporteur to humanitarian agencies: he said they should “ensure” that their programs benefit “vulnerable groups, including those who are in detention facilities, prison camps and political prison camps.”[19] It is also time for the United States to urge Secretary-General Guterres to apply to North Korea the UN policy of 2013 which he endorsed – namely the Human Rights up Front (HRuF) approach, which calls upon the entire UN system to come together in the face of serious human rights violations and take steps on behalf of the victims.

Fifth, the United States should develop contingency plans with China for addressing a crisis in the north that also encompasses protection and assistance for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Significant numbers of North Koreans can be expected to flee to China and South Korea in the event of an emergency, and even more become internally displaced, making it desirable for the United States and South Korea to develop plans with China for managing migration.[20] China is already reported to be constructing refugee camps along its border areas with North Korea.[21] An agreement among the three under United Nations auspices should aim at stabilization of the peninsula, provision of material aid, protection of displaced persons, and incentives and opportunities to build and transform the country in accordance with international human rights, humanitarian and refugee standards and humane treatment of displaced persons.

Finally, the United States should revisit any restrictions now placed on the admission of North Korean refugees that could conflict with the spirit and intent of the North Korean Human Rights Act (2004). Our government should make known its readiness, given the persecution and punishment to which North Koreans are subject, to increase the number of North Korean refugees admitted to this country. In FY 2017, only 12 were reported to be admitted, contributing to a total of 212 since 2006. While the vast majority of North Koreans will choose to seek refuge in South Korea, some have reasons for seeking to resettle in the United States, and should not be discouraged. As Victor Cha and Robert Gallucci have recommended the United States should “seek public and private sector funding” for “educational scholarships and vocational training,” [22] in particular from the Korean American community, to empower the North Koreans already admitted to this country and help them overcome the traumas they experienced in fleeing one of the most tyrannical governments on the planet.

[1] UN General Assembly, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/25/63, 7 February 2014, paras. 42,76, 89(m) [henceforth COI report].
[2] COI report, ibid., para. 43.
[3] UN General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK, A/72/394, 19 September 2017, para. 25 [henceforth SR Report].
[4] SR Report, ibid.
[5] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding Observations, CEDAW/C/PRK/CO/2-4, 17 November 2017, para. 45 (c).
[6] Ibid., para. 45 (d).
[7] UN General Assembly, Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK, A/HRC/25/CRP.1, 7 February 2014, para. 1197 [henceforth COI report 2].
[8] See Roberta Cohen, “China’s Forced Repatriation of North Korean Refugees Incurs United Nations Censure,” International Journal of Korean Studies, Spring/Summer 2014, pp. 72-3.
[9] UN Committee against Torture, CAT/C/CHN/CO/5, 3 February 2016, paras. 46-48.
[10] See Jane Perlez, “China Girds for North Korean Refugees,” New York Times, December 12, 2017; and David E. Sanger, “Tillerson Speaks on a Largely Secret North Korea Contingency Plan,” New York Times, December 18, 2017.
[11] In October 2017, the Department of the Treasury announced sanctions on seven North Korean individuals and three entities for hunting down of asylum seekers abroad and other abuses. See “U.S. Sanctions North Koreans for ‘Flagrant’ Rights Abuse, Reuters, October 26, 2017.
[12] SR Report, para. 3.
[13] SR Report, ibid., para. 26; see also Cohen, “China’s Forced Repatriation of North Korean Refugees,” pp. 74-75.
[14] North Korea told this to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2017. See Elizabeth Shim, “North Korea: Repatriated women defectors are not punished,” UPI, August 4, 2017.
[15] Roberta Cohen, “UN Humanitarian Actors and North Korea’s Prison Camps,” International Journal of Korean Studies, Spring/Summer 2017, pp. 1-24.
[16] UN General Assembly, Report of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/72/279, 3 August 2017, para. 37.
[17] COI report 2, para. 804.
[18] UN General Assembly, Resolution on the Situation of human rights in the DPRK, A/C.3/72/L.40, 31 October 2017, paras. 2(vi), 5, and 15(m).
[19] SR Report, para. 48.
[20] See Roberta Cohen, “Human Rights and Humanitarian Planning for Crisis in North Korea,” International Journal of Korean Studies, Fall/Winter 2015, pp. 11-16.
[21] See Jane Perlez, “China Girds for North Korean Refugees,” New York Times, December 12, 2017; and “Report: China’s Military Prepared for Collapse Scenario,” Daily NK, May 5, 2014.
[22]  See Victor Cha and Robert L. Gallucci, Toward a New Policy and Strategy for North Korea, George W. Bush Institute, 2016, p. 8; and Education and Employment Among U.S.-Based North Koreans: Challenges and Opportunities, George W. Bush Institute, 2016.