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North Korean Refugees in China: Sometimes it’s Better to be Lucky than Good

by | August 15th, 2014 | 06:16 pm

In the last few weeks a spate of stories have emerged involving North Korean refugees in China and the people who may (or may not) be assisting them. Sorting out truth from fiction, systematic policy from ad hoc decisions by local officials, and signaling from fundamental policy shifts is no easy thing. Time to triangulate.

So, what are the pieces of the puzzle?

First, there is a story on Sky News which as far as I know has not been confirmed by any other source (if you know better, feel free to chime in) that a group of North Korean refugees detained on the Laotian border by Chinese authorities on 1 August are being repatriated to South, not North, Korea. So, first off, we don’t know if this story is true. An earlier account via Yonhap suggests that a group of refugees caught on the Laotian border were being refouled, but it’s not clear which account is accurate or even if they are referring to the same group, since the Yonhap story had their refugees getting caught on 12 August.

Setting aside such confusions, if the Sky News story were true, the development would not be entirely unprecedented—occasionally in the past Chinese authorities have handed over refugees to South Korea—but it would appear to violate China’s agreement with the DPRK that such people should be returned to North Korea.

Assuming the story is correct, what is China’s motivation? A few possibilities:

  • China is getting increasingly fed up with North Korea and is signaling its displeasure, much like it may be doing in the oil (non-) embargo case.
  • The policy of refouling the refugees is contrary to Chinese international treaty obligations and the government is tired of getting hammered by groups like the UN’s Commission of Inquiry which explicitly criticized Chinese behavior on this issue.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping is in love with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and wants to curry favor. It’s hard to miss the fact that they have met five times, but Xi has yet to meet Kim Jong-un. Or, to depersonalize it, Beijing is tilting toward Seoul.
  • South Korea was deeply embarrassed when a previous group caught on the Laotian border which included a number of minors was repatriated to North Korea, and is hence pressing China hard on this case.

Yet, at the same time that it’s reportedly turning over refugees to the South Koreans, China is also cracking down in the North Korea border area, refusing to extend the visas of South Korean Christian missionaries working in that region, and detaining others who have legal status.  According to reporting by Megha Rajagopalan and James Pearson at Reuters, as many as one-third of the South Korean missionaries operating in the border region have been forced out.  Peter Hahn, a naturalized US citizen, profiled here and here, was detained by Chinese authorities who have interrogated him for weeks and will not allow him to leave the country. Hahn has been doing relief work in Tumen City for years, but has never been publicly associated with the underground railroad spiriting refugees out of the immediate border zone, The arrest on espionage charges in Dandong of Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt, prominent Christians involved in North Korea work was the subject of a previous post.

Why? A few possibilities:

  • This is a coordinated effort with North Korea to impede unauthorized cross-border movements.
  • President Xi really doesn’t like Christianity, and this crackdown is not aimed at those helping North Koreans specifically, but is part of a broader crackdown on the practice of Christianity in China.
  • The Garratts, Hahn, and a 1,000 of their brethren are crooks.

The two stories could be reconciled by interpreting Chinese actions as reflecting a policy of “we’ll try to stop you from crossing the border, but if somehow you escape the dragnet and make it to the border with Mongolia or a Southeast Asian country we’ll treat you mercifully,” except in another story Yonhap is also reporting that at least 38 North Koreans were refouled last month.

In short, who knows?  If you are a North Korean refugee in China dumb luck may be your most reliable friend.