This post is also available in: Korean

Despite China’s government having signed two international treaties on refugees (see 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees), they label North Korean refugees as economic migrants and forcibly repatriate every one they can catch.  If caught, these refugees face torture and imprisonment when sent back.

With no legal status in China, the refugees are very vulnerable to crime.  Women who flee to China easily fall victim to sex traffickers or are sold to Chinese or Korean Chinese men as “wives”.  Some of the children of these marriages end up as orphans if the mother is repatriated and the father is unable or unwilling to care for the child.  Many of the children are de facto stateless.  Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea says to get the proper documentation to register for school, the child’s Chinese father must prove the North Korean mother was sent back!  (see this Human Rights Watch report for more details)

North Koreans who go to China to earn a bit of money so they can return and feed their families, often come to the conclusion that the only long-term solution is to go to South Korea.  This involves attempting to escape China and make their way through other countries via a long underground railroad to freedom (see Seoul Train documentary).  South Korea is bound by its constitution to accept as a citizen any Korean born anywhere in the world, so unlike most refugee problems, there is a place for those hiding in China.  The problem is getting there.