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.
With no legal status in China, the refugees are very vulnerable to crime — if caught, they face torture and imprisonment when sent back. 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)
In the end, North Koreans who typically went to China to earn a bit of money so they could 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 one’s way through other countries via a long underground railroad to freedom (see National Geographic article & 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.