Actions speak louder than words
The issue of North Korean refugees is, ethically and legally, a global responsibility.
Displacement and suffering have shaped the human landscape of the Korean peninsula. Annexed in 1910 and occupied until 1945 by the Empire of Japan, between 4 and 6 million Koreans were forced into slavery as laborers and up to 200,000 Korean women served as sexual slaves. Come 1945, 20 percent of the Korean population had been displaced and nearly half a million had been killed.
This legacy of loss and dislocation continued throughout the Korean War and forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans to migrate between the newly formed North and South Koreas.
For the people of South Korea, memories of these times are still raw. The ongoing struggles over Japanese apologies, compensation and how to deal with North Korea all point to wounds that have yet to heal.
But for North Koreans, memories of displacement and brutalization cannot be confined to the historical record for they are also the reality of life today. A 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry established that extermination; enslavement; torture; rape; forced abortions; sexual violence; and persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds are all prevalent in North Korea.
That such abuses continue is surely one of the greatest failures of the modern era’s collective response to atrocities.
One consequence of this failure has been the creation of a North Korean refugee crisis. Since the late 1990s, when significant numbers of North Koreans began to flee their homeland following severe famine, it is estimated that more than 200,000 have fled to China. In that time, just 30,000 North Koreans have successfully reached the safety of South Korea, while about 2,000 have settled in North America and Europe, including close to 1,000 in the United Kingdom.
In theory, the government of China should accept North Koreans as asylum seekers and extend the many protections granted by the U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. It should allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to screen, determine the status and protect those in need. And it should not practice refoulement — the forcible return of North Koreans to a country where they risk persecution.
Despite this, plus many other international obligations (namely the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women), China deports up to 6,000 North Koreans every year. Upon their repatriation, North Koreans, of which about 70 percent are women and girls, face torture, sexual violence, imprisonment and even execution.
What can the world do to end this illegal situation? The international community has long called upon Beijing to stop the arrests and deportation of North Koreans, while numerous U.N. speeches and resolutions have called upon the Government of North Korea to respect fundamental human rights. The final report of the former United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, noted, “The Secretary-General remains concerned that women who seek to leave or have left [North Korea] are subject to trafficking and sexual abuse … serious human rights violations, including torture and ill-treatment.”
That our words and concerns have failed to protect North Korean escapees is clear. Sitting thousands of miles from Northeast Asia, and facing the might of the Government of China, it would be easy to see desperate and fleeing North Koreans as a responsibility for someone else.
But the issue of North Korean refugees is, ethically and legally, a global responsibility. Where vulnerable escapees face journeys that risk imprisonment or death, we are compelled to provide our support.
The North Korean government is the cause of the refugee crisis and should be our long-term target, but engaging the Chinese government may provide a more feasible short-term solution. Clearly, Beijing does not want North Korean refugees on its territory, so conscientious states should begin to quietly offer an alternative to China: namely, that their embassies and consulates would, without publicity or fanfare, take custody of captured North Koreans from Chinese authorities and aid their travels to safe havens such as South Korea or Europe. In return, China would gain further leverage over North Korea, end years of negative publicity, and put a foot on the right side of history.
This recommendation may appear improbable or unrealistic. But as Nelson Mandela frequently told us, the most arduous challenges seem impossible until they are conquered. That China would welcome a solution to an internal refugee crisis should not surprise us. Instead, it should encourage us to formulate new solutions. A day will come when all North Koreans are free. Until that day, we must do what we can to help refugees that fall within our grasp.
*Lord Alton of Liverpool is co-chair of the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and a crossbench member of the House of Lords. James Burt is special adviser to the group and director of research at the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea.
Lord Alton of Liverpool