A young North Korean women wearing oversized sunglasses tells her tale of escaping from North Korea: She was six, and her mother carried her to China on her back. But leaving the country was only the beginning of their problems.
“As a North Korean refugee, I’ve [been] sent back with my family about four times,” she said in a YouTube video created by the North Korea Freedom Coalition (NKFC). “And every time we’re sent back to North Korea, we [were] tortured by officers in China and in North Korea, so every time we have to do our best to survive.”
She did survive and eventually made it to America, but others are not so lucky. Repatriated refugees end up in prison, tortured, or killed. NKFC, a coalition of 70 organizations fighting for North Korean rights, is trying to help refugees in China by circulating an online petition asking Chinese President Xi Jinping to honor the UN Convention on Refugees and allow the international community to handle refugees.
North Korean defectors covertly cross the Chinese border seeking food and an escape from the totalitarian regime’s persecution. Although they can gain automatic citizenship in South Korea, China claims the defectors are “economic migrants” and does not allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to them.
While they try to escape detection by Chinese officials, 90 percent of North Korean women who cross to China are trafficked to Chinese men as wives, since the country’s one-child policy has led to a shortage of women.
Suzanne Scholte, executive director of NKFC, has been pressing the Chinese government on the issue of forced repatriation since 1996 and has seen things get worse as China cracked down during the 2008 Olympics and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took over power from his father in 2011. South Korea noted a significant drop in refugees from its northern neighbor from 2,700 in 2011 to just over 1,500 in 2012, as both North Korea and China tightened their border watch.
And yet Scholte is hopeful that recent changes in Chinese public sentiment toward the Korean peninsula are paving the way for change in its repatriation policy. For one, the close relationship China and North Korea once shared is started to fall apart over the rogue nation’s nuclear weapons. In February, Deng Yuwen, deputy editor of China’s Communist Party journal, wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times calling for China to abandon North Korea and push for reunification with the South. While he was fired for the article, Chinese citizens rallied on the web agreeing that North Korea had become a liability.
“China wants North Korea to be an open regime adopting some of the same reform China has,” Scholte said. “Yet [it's] kowtowing to dictatorship by forcing people back.”
At the same time, China has cozied up to South Korea as its trade continues to grow. Last June, Korean President Park Geun-hye visited Xi, who welcomed her as “an old friend.” China has also been wrapped up in South Korean culture, from TV dramas to K-pop bands who sing in both Korean and Chinese to cater to a Chinese market.
As Schlote speaks about China’s policy on North Korean refugees at American universities, she’s found that many students from China are horrified about what their country is doing. She also points out how North Koreans are racist toward their benefactors.
“One thing we have heard repeatedly is that when a North Korean female is repatriated, she is forced to undergo an abortion … because the baby is half Chinese,” Schlote said. “This shows the contempt of the North Koreans and their racist attitude toward the Chinese.”
In this climate, NKFC plans to collect signatures from around the world to deliver to the Chinese embassy in December. They have also released a YouTube video with first-person accounts from three defectors that included Korean, Chinese, and Spanish subtitles.
The group also compiled a list of refugees and humanitarian workers taken by China, which only accounts for a fraction of all the people taken. Relying on information from nonprofits and missionaries helping North Koreans escape, the list now totals several hundred. The newest additions include nine young people between the ages of 15 and 23.
According to CNN, the nine defectors made it to China separately, surviving frostbite, starvation, and beatings. A South Korean missionary couple in China decided to help them escape by bringing them over to Laos then to South Korea or America to claim asylum.
“As we lived with these children, I saw them change,” the missionary’s wife told CNN. “They started having hopes, they started dreaming and I know they were happier. I was overjoyed to have done something worthwhile.”
While taking a bus to the Laotian capital last May, police detained the nine defectors because they didn’t have paperwork. After two weeks, Laotian officials told the defectors they were sending them to South Korea. Instead, they sent them back to China, then to North Korea.
After returning to North Korea, the youngsters were forced to appear on state-run TV saying they were tricked into leaving North Korea and thanked Kim Jong Un for bringing them back. Schlote, who helped with the escape, said that as long as the international media focuses on them, North Korea will continue to treat them well for propaganda purposes.
The South Korean missionary agrees, telling CNN: “If we don’t pay attention, if we don’t keep asking where these children are, then these children will be lost forever and we will never know what happened to them.”