North Korean Refugees

It is probably a good thing that I am including a post that does not even indirectly talk about Obama.  I was beginning to feel that my blog was becoming an Obama love-in!  That being said, I’m sure more posts about the man will be coming, but for now, here’s something a bit different.

Disclaimer: The following was written as part of the application process for an NGO called HanVoice, which I am hoping to get involved with.  I had mixed emotions writing it given the dueling facts that I have a Chinese mother and the fact that the piece is quite critical of China.  I am proud of that side of my family and am, in no way, anti-China.  It is a great story that China has been able to experience the economic boom that it has been experiencing for the past decade or so.  It speaks to the hard work of the Chinese people and because of it, China is becoming more prosperous every day and hence better able to put food on the billion plus plates in the country.  That being said, it is far from perfect and the following article expands on one of the reasons why this is so.

The North Korean Refugee Crisis

kim jong il.jpg

It is widely believed that over 500,000 North Koreans have managed to escape their repressive government in the last ten years, and that escape attempts remain a daily occurrence. It is also no secret that China holds active “search and seizure” campaigns in order to find and repatriate these refugees. This paper holds that this represents a clear breach of international law on China’s part.

The dire situation in North Korea

North Korea is a highly secretive authoritarian dictatorship, whose elite essentially ignore the basic needs of their citizens. Despite the extreme opaqueness of the state, it has become inextricably clear through numerous sources, that it represents one of the most repressive nations in the world and a serious humanitarian crisis.

It is widely believed that between two and three million North Koreans starved to death between the years 1995 and 1998. This countrywide famine was sparked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which, up until then, was North Korea’s main supplier of food and supplies. North Korea’s reaction to this was to turn inward and to become openly hostile to the outside world, resulting in the essential disappearance of international aid, which all North Koreans had come to heavily rely on. The little international aid that was received was funnelled directly to the army and the party elite, leaving the vast majority of its citizens to fend for themselves. Essentially, North Korea stood and watched as almost one-fifths of it’s citizenry died off.

Conditions have not been improving. It is said that 40% of North Korean children are malnourished and that there are 200,000 street kids who have been orphaned. Many of North Korea’s citizens are known to eat grass and tree bark. More disturbingly, representing a fierce sense of urgency, canibalism has been a part of the lives of many North Koreans. It is not unusual to have human flesh sold in North Korean markets.

If they complain or dissent in any way, they know what their fate will hold. North Korea has over 200,000 of its citizens in prison camps. Its prisoners are put to work in deplorable conditions, remain malnourished, and are often tortured and/or killed. Their choice is to either die of starvation or to attempt to seek a better life outside North Korea’s borders. Their decision to flee becomes a clear choice.

Once North Koreans escape

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950, having as its goal the respect, protection, and safety of refugees around the world. Pertinent to this paper is Article 33, which reads as follows:

Prohibition of expulsion or return (“refoulement”)
1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any
manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom
would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership
of a particular social group or political opinion.

Because China is a signatory member of the United Nations and ratified this convention on September 24th, 1982, they are forbidden by international law to repatriate any North Korean refugee who manages to escape. All North Koreans who have been repatriated have been put into prison camps, which are not unlike the concentration camps of the Nazis during the 2nd World War. Prisoners are beaten, tortured, malnourished, humiliated, and often publicly executed. For the women in these camps, rape is very common. I have even heard such horror stories where shovels or spears would be inserted into their genitalia. Moreover, pregnant women often are forced to give birth, only to see their baby killed in front of their eyes, by a North Korean prison guard.

What can be done

Canada and other countries who promote human rights worldwide need to forcefully lobby and pressure China into changing its behaviour towards North Korean refugees. In order for China to be completely accepted by the international community, it needs to make a moral stand on human rights. It remains the last step in what has been an amazing story of growth and prosperity for, many would argue, the next superpower. Moreover, international law created by the UN is useless unless it is abided by and respected. If China is to be the next superpower, it must do so not only by being the most powerful nation, economically and militarily, but by being a moral nation, a good example for the rest of the world, and a country with a conscience.



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2 responses to “North Korean Refugees

  1. Hi James!
    Thank you for writing this excellent blog post about the NK refugee crisis. It’s especially inspiring as you’ve mentioned your mother’s side of the family is Chinese.

    I hope you’ve heard back from us (HanVoice) about getting involved. Looks like you’d be a wonderful asset to the team 🙂

  2. Thanks for your post. I just wrote one about what it means when such brutality is “normalized” by virtue of simply being used on a regular basis…when in fact it ought to be regarded still as beyond the pale. I am providing the link in case you are interested.

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