[Overseasview]The rights of North Korean refugeesMr. Kim, a 47-year-old North Korean man, blurted out angrily, “They don’t give us rations, and they don’t allow us freedom to make a living.” He was trying to explain to Human Rights Watch why he escaped his home country. “How on earth can we survive? My country has become plain rotten.”
Kim used to work at a machinery factory in the city of Hamhung, which is located in the northeastern part of North Korea.
The factory has long since stopped operating at normal capacity, having lost 500 out of 600 workers. Many died during the famine in the 1990s, and some left for a marginally better life elsewhere, including places like China. Kim, too, finally decided to give up and leave last year for China, just like many hundreds of thousands who have gone before him.
Make no mistake ― Kim’s decision to flee to China was not easy; harder still was making that flight happen and living with the consequences.
But Kim felt he had no other choice. His salary, even when paid regularly, didn’t buy enough food. At a market in Hamhung, a kilogram of rice costs the same as Kim’s monthly take-home salary. State rations supposed to last a month only fed him for two or three days. So how did they get by at all? Kim’s wife sold vegetables in markets. They survived on her income, but barely.
Because the North Korean government denies its citizens freedom of movement, Kim needed travel permits for his wife, son and himself just to get near the border. The process could take many months going through a bureaucracy that involves the Workers’ Party, the local police station and his superiors at work. And he needed a convincing reason, such as the death of a parent or a child’s wedding.
So Kim “bought” the permits, which cost him 15,000 North Korean won ($100 at the official exchange rate, or about $5 at the black market rate) that he borrowed from here and there. Considering that his monthly salary was 1,800 won, and about 800 won was deducted for mandatory contributions to the Workers’ Party and his factory union, the travel permits cost about 15 months of Kim’s take-home salary. That is, if he got paid every month, which he didn’t.
But of course the travel permits took them only near the border, not across it.
In North Korea, leaving the country without state permission is considered a crime and an act of treason, punishable by harsh sentences.
Kim could apply for a passport, but doing so is far more complicated than obtaining internal travel permits, and generally only selected members of the elite class with considerable wealth manage to procure them. By definition, most North Koreans leaving the country become criminals.
As Kim was getting ready to leave, he heard that there was a new central government warning that the sentence for illegal border crossing was now much worse; from one year up to life in prison, compared to a few months in a forced labor camp before.
A few years in a North Korean prison could mean death, as inmates suffer from chronic and severe shortages of food and medicines, in addition to physical and verbal abuse. But if one were caught while trying to go to South Korea, Kim heard, three generations of his family would be punished. Such threats still did not stop him from crossing over. He had to feed his family.
But their ordeal was and still is far from over, as the Chinese authorities treat North Korean border-crossers as illegal economic migrants, and frequently arrest and forcibly repatriate them. Kim, his wife and their teenage son are now living in hiding outside North Korea.
This is one family’s story, but it is also the story of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans who have crossed the border over more than a decade.
The fact that Kim and his family face certain persecution back home makes them refugees in international refugee law, which Beijing pledged to uphold when it became a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
However, China deported nearly 5,000 North Koreans from the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture (the region bordering North Korea) in the year 2002 alone (the only year for which deportation statistics are available), according to the Institute of World Economics and Politics in China.
China cannot possibly be considered a responsible international power until it fulfills its obligation to offer shelter and protection to North Korean defectors, and gives United Nations officials access to these people to determine their refugee status.
At the same time, nobody can deny the North Korean government’s responsibility for its people’s suffering.
After all, this is the government that cannot or will not feed its people, and often impedes their ability to ensure their own survival.
If the North Korean government wants to be treated as a normal member of the international community, it needs first to stop punishing people for exercising some of the most basic human rights ― the right to leave any country and the right to seek asylum.
*The writer is deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
by Sophie Richardson