With the repatriation of at least 50 North Korean refugees from China in the last few weeks, the international community has once again failed in the battle to save North Korean refugees from the chilling fate which faces them once forcibly returned to North Korea.
Those sent back to North Korea in late February and early March include an elderly man between 70 and 80, two teenagers, and a 14-month old infant. They, along with all other North Koreans repatriated back to North Korea, are likely to be detained inside a North Korean prison camp; where they face malnutrition, exhaustion, and hunger. Others may be summarily executed upon arrival.
This is the sad end to yet another attempt by the South Korean government, concerned citizens, and international human rights groups to convince China to conform to international laws and norms and grant these North Koreans their proper status as refugees.
At least 41 refugees had fled North Korea in 3 separate groups, and were rounded up in various areas within Northern China. Since news of their arrest, the international community had been pressuring China to grant the North Korean citizens refugee status.
Since news of the refugees’ detainment hit South Korea, many South Koreans and Korean Americans had rallied to the cause; creating the “#savemyfriend” campaign, protesting outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul, and garnering international attention.
Most notably, South Korean lawmaker, and member of the Liberty Forward Party, Pak Sun-Young, staged a hunger strike on the doorstep of the Chinese embassy in Seoul. She collapsed March 2nd, on the 11th day of her strike, but continued to campaign from her hospital bed.
Both the American and South Korean governments had been trying to put pressure on China without severely criticizing the Chinese leadership. On March 9th, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, offered support for the refugees stating: "We urge every country to act according to international obligations" including the 1951 UN refugee convention and the 1967 protocol.
"The United States shares the concerns held by both the government and the people of the Republic of (South) Korea about the human rights situation in North Korea and the treatment of North Korean refugees."
The South Korean government had also upped its public pressure on China; however the government did so with caution, wary of offending the Chinese government and damaging economic and political ties with China.
The government did, however, pass a resolution calling on China not to repatriate the refugees, and has introduced a non-binding resolution at the UN Human Rights Council during the UN Special Rapporteur’s report on human rights in North Korea.
All of these actions, however, were not enough to convince China to protect the North Koreans as refugees; instead the Chinese government has continued their policy of treating them as illegal economic migrants and handing them over to the North Korean authorities.
As life in North Korea perpetually teeters on the brink of catastrophe, there will no doubt be more refugees captured, detained and returned by the Chinese government.