North Koreans live under the authoritarian rule of the Kim dynasty and face high levels of poverty, poor living conditions and high levels of government persecution. If caught escaping the regime, they face the certainty of incarceration and in most cases death. In the last three decades alone, particularly in the early 1990s during the great famine, many North Koreans escaped the oppressive regime via China and then moved onto a third country. However, China has held a repatriation policy with North Korea classifying North Korean refugees as “illegal economic criminals.” As a result, the plight of North Korean refugees deserves a closer examination by the international community given the desperate nature of this humanitarian crisis.
In the past year, defector numbers have declined by approximately 17% with even fewer making it to South Korea. This is largely due to the increase in security monitoring on the Chinese border and an increase in police patrols in some of North Korea’s metropolitan cities. As it stands, the majority of defecting refugees escape from the North Eastern provinces (roughly 80%) as these are less militarized and provide easier access into China. Refugees escape the brutal regime mainly through not-for-profit underground networks that operate across North Korean and Chinese borders. There are approximately 100,000 to 300,000 refugees that have escaped the regime in its 70-year history, most of whom end up living in secrecy in Russia or China.
The repatriation policy of the Chinese government owes to the fact that defectors are considered “illegal economic migrants.” Given that the preservation of this relationship takes precedence over the rights, protections and freedom of North Korean refugees it is incumbent on the U.S. and the extended international community to respond to this crisis in an appropriate way. China, itself negligible when it comes to human rights, won’t change its policy soon. There are however many not-for-profit organizations based in South Korea that actively promote the rights and freedoms of North Korean defectors which is cause for hope. On the international stage, U.S. President Donald Trump has met with Kim Jong Un in relation to denuclearisation and the lifting of economic sanctions. These meetings have also included a brief focus on human rights. There remains an opportunity for U.S. foreign policy makers to instigate change in relation to the situation by way of incorporating human rights dialogue into the talks and future relationship of the U.S. and North Korea.
In July 2018, The North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017 outrightly condemned the treatment of North Korean citizens by the oppressive regime and called upon the regime to respect the rights of its citizens. On top of this, it also supported the allocation of funds to support a special envoy on North Korean human rights at an international level. As a result, the meetings between Kim and Trump have followed on from this renewed legislation which ought to give the international community cause for more hope.
While denuclearisation is important, human rights dialogue must factor into the North Korean strategy adopted by the U.S. and indeed the rest of the world. The international community should also increase its responsiveness to the plight of North Korean refugees by granting protection visas to refugees and extending every due process to their protection internationally. North Korean refugees also serve as a vital form of intelligence, experience and information on the nature of life in the hermit state and therefore have a role to play in placing external pressure on the regime if things are to improve in the future.