North Korea has historically been known as a country that violates many human rights of North Korean citizens, motivating them to seek refuge in another country such as China. However, China is actively contravening its international obligations toward North Korean refugees by infringing upon international human rights laws such as violating the commitment to adhere to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees by recognizing North Koreans that have fled their country as refugees.
Furthermore, it is vital that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) do not actively engage in the process of forcing North Korean refugees back to North Korea as they will be subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment for leaving North Korea on account of the fact that it is considered treason. In addition to the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees to North Korea, the PRC treats North Korean refugees in a way in which they cannot live a safe, healthy life in China. Therefore, international steps for intervention need to be taken in order to diminish the human rights violations that are taking place in China.
The history of human rights violations begins with the historical context of North Korean ideology in regards to human rights. North Korean ideology stemmed from Confucianism, imported from China during the Yi dynasty (1392-1910). This ideology stressed the importance of collective rights—referring to the state—over individual rights. The next way of thinking that influenced North Korean human rights ideology was the concept of Juche which translates to “self-reliance. ” This concept was first expressed in 1955 under the leadership of Kim Il-sung.
This way of thinking emerged as the state ideology after the international hostility towards North Korea after the Cold War, particularly in regards to North Korea’s nuclear intentions. It is evident to conclude that this state ideology has evolved into the human rights thinking in North Korea in the present. The most important philosophy in North Korea is to be loyal to the state and those who are viewed as untrustworthy, such as those who fled south during the Korean war and anyone associated with these people, for example, are treated unfairly and have more occurrences of human rights abuses.
In 1981, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) had signed the United Nations human rights covenants, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). In addition, the DPRK had signed the Covenant on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 2000 and signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) the following year.
Although the DPRK has signed and ratified these binding treaties, it does not stop the state in regards to human rights abuses which persuades North Korean citizens to flee their country to the neighbouring country of China even though China has violated many international laws as well (Jiyoung & Weatherley, 2008). There is very limited freedom of movement and residence in North Korea as there are compulsory job placements and the state chooses where the citizens live after graduation school or completing their military service.
In addition, North Koreans are forbidden to move without permission from the authorities, although leaving the country under any circumstances was only implemented in 1998. However, they are instances in which a North Korean citizen is able to travel out of the country, but it is only those who are of high superior family background and have what is called “ideological integrity”—in other words, they are very loyal to the state. Albeit not many ordinary citizens are able to travel outside the country, it is still possible.
The only way would be to bribe the authorities, though it is a rarity considering ordinary citizens do not have much financial stability. According to a survey conducted by the Korean Bar Association, 89% of North Korean citizens said they wished to move or travel to another place. Those who wish to travel to China in order to trade or visit relatives must be over 45 years old, have no criminal record and must provide information on where and who they will be staying with during their time out of the country (Bin et al, 2014, pp. 225-230).
Huge amounts of refugees began crossing into China during the 1990s as a result of all the food shortages. Many North Korean refugees wish to leave their country due to political repression, family reunion, economic difficulties, and the ultimate goal of freedom, to name a few. Most North Korean refugees are between the ages of 25 and 50 and just over half of them are women. Family background is a factor that contributes to the desire to leave their own country because those that are related to those that are seen as disloyal to the state, landowners, or those who went South during the Korean War were very disadvantaged.
For example, many ended up in labour camps, assigned the worst jobs, or had poorer education. These disadvantaged individuals account for 75% of the population. One of the biggest reasons for leaving North Korea is due to the circumstances of the economy. In addition, North Koreans suffer the conditions of living in a country that suppresses their rights such as freedom of information and all forms of media. The media in North Korea is severely controlled, and those that are caught listening to Chinese radio stations, for example, will be viewed as traitors and punished.
Most North Korean refugees understood that living in China would be better for them and their families from rumours and word of mouth. The most common way to flee the country was to pay state officials (Allen et al, 2006, pp. 15-25). Future plans for North Koreans that wish to leave their country most of the time are to remain in China or migrate to another country because the consequences of returning to North Korea are very severe. A lot of North Korean refugees only remain in China for a small amount of time before moving on to another country such as Thailand or South Korea, for instance.
While in China, many North Korean refugees are in constant fear of arrest and do not have many job opportunities to provide for themselves and their families. Even if they do acquire a job, most of the time the wages are extremely low. If arrested, a North Korean refugee will very likely be persecuted for exercising the fundamental right to leave one’s country in the international human rights law. China is obligated to protect these North Korean refugees, no matter what their crimes or suspected activity.
Typically, China allows asylum seekers to reside in China after receiving refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), yet North Koreans are continuously left out of this process (Allen et al, 2006, pp. 9-11). Many North Korean refugees seek refuge in embassies to attempt to move on to South Korea, which can create international attention. Therefore, Chinese officials usually let them travel to South Korea to avoid the public attention.
For the purpose of diminishing instances of North Koreans refugees seeking refuge in an embassy, China has enhanced their security and have built barbed wire fences near the embassies (Allen et al, 2006, pp. 38-39). The vulnerability of North Korean refugees makes them easily subjected to many abuses perpetrated by employers, brokers, and those that are involved in human trafficking. Many North Korean refugee women are taken by brokers and pimps to be sold as wives to Chinese men typically in rural areas.
This was due to the shortage of marriage-age Chinese women because of the historical and common occurrence of abortions and infanticide of female babies due to a preference for male babies since they were thought of the superior gender that could provide more for the family. However, being married to a Chinese man does not guarantee safety for the female North Korean woman as she can still suffer from many abuses from her husband and still risk repatriation.
These instances of traumatic events and abuses can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety, similar to other North Korean refugees that have faced traumatic experiences throughout their journey of escaping North Korea. Those that are not married off may resort to prostitution as a way to provide for themselves and their families. This violates CEDAW which China signed and ratified in 1980 (Allen et al, 2006, pp. 23-49).