North Korean Defectors Pose Dilemma to China and South Korea

By Claire Li (CMC ’19)

While much of the international community focuses on the refugee problem in the Middle East, there is an ongoing refugee crisis on the Korean peninsula. Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled their country and sought refugee status in South Korea and China. However, in order to maintain positive international relations in the region, China and South Korea have shown great reluctance to accept defectors as refugees.

The increasing number of North Koreans fleeing to South Korea and China has created a dilemma. By 2010 over 20,000 North Korean defectors in total had arrived in South Korea.[1] As of 2014, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 defectors were permanently residing in China. The primary causes of defection from North Korea are reported to be food shortage, the declining economy, and political instability.[2] Because they are fleeing from dangerous living conditions at home, North Korean defectors are legally classified as refugees and are protected under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.[3]  The governments of China and South Korea, however, are reluctant to treat North Korean defectors as refugees.

Defectors are subject to the harsh North Korean justice system, where torture is frequently used,[4] if they are found sneaking through the fences of the border. Some defectors attempt escape by swimming across the Yellow Sea, hoping to be spotted by Chinese civilians.[5] Women who are desperate to leave the country participate in sex trafficking to do so.[6] Even if a defector does manage to escape, they do not obtain legal refugee status in the host country easily. In China, the defectors face daily risks of being discovered and repatriated. Chinese law stipulates that any illegal defector caught within Chinese territory is to be repatriated to their home country. Because the South Korean government has accepted a small amount of defectors, there have been cases where defectors seek assistance from South Korean embassies in China.[7]

From the perspective of Seoul, public acceptance of defectors would further antagonize the North Korean government, increasing the chance of military conflict and inhibit talks between the governments on denuclearization. Moreover, the potential instability caused by an outflow of North Korean defectors may create a heavier humanitarian responsibility for South Korea, which could burden its economy.

Beijing also sees clashing with North Korea as undesirable. The two countries maintain a close relationship through the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty.[8] This treaty is essential to Chinese military influence in the Yellow Sea and nearby territories.[9]  Further, the Chinese government would not want to risk destabilizing the North Korean regime by encouraging an outflow of North Korean defectors. More instability in the North Korean regime could not only increase the likelihood of conflict but also encourage the United States military to become more involved in Northeast Asia, threatening the interests of China.[10] Because these security concerns significantly outweigh the practical consequences of violating international law, the Chinese government continues to repatriate the defectors despite that doing so breaches the 1951 Convention.

The reluctance of both governments to accept defectors as refugees demonstrates the potential conflict between national priorities and international human rights law. While the relationships between North Korea, South Korea, and China will most likely remain tense for the foreseeable future, the international community should commit to finding a solution for the North Korean refugee problem.




[1]  O, Tara. “The Integration of North Korean Defectors in South Korea: Problems and Prospects.” International Journal of Korean Studies XV (n.d.): 151. Web.

[2] Ibid.

[3]  “UN: Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951.” International Documents on Corporate Responsibility (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

[4]  Lee, Kyung. “Torture a Systematic Element of North Korean Justice System: Researcher.” NK News. N.p., 18 June 2016. Web.

[5]  AFP In Seoul. “North Korean Pair ‘swim across Sea Border to Defect to South Korea'” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 14 Aug. 2014. Web.

[6]  Harden, Blain. “North Korean Women Who Try to Flee to China Encounter Abuse at Home and Abroad.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 10 June 2009. Web.

[7] Chung, Eunbee. “The Chinese Government’s Policy towards North Korean Defectors.” The Yonsei Journal (2013): n. pag. Web.

[8]  Bajoria, Jayshree. “The China-North Korea Relationship.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 2008. Web.

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Chung, Eunbee. “The Chinese Government’s Policy towards North Korean Defectors.” The Yonsei Journal (2013): n. pag. Web.

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