SEOUL, South Korea — FOR years, thousands of North Koreans have been sneaking across the border into China to escape oppression. The Chinese authorities routinely hunt down defectors and return them to North Korea, where they face torture, forced labor, life in a prison camp or even public execution.
This past year much has been written about the people fleeing the Middle East for Europe. The world should also pay attention to the North Korean refugee crisis, and to the desperation that drives it. North Koreans are forced to work at state jobs in a moribund economy. Countless parents watch their children go to bed hungry. Many North Korean families feel they have no option but to try to escape.
In 1997, I defected as a naïve 17-year-old girl who simply wanted to explore the world. I was fortunate to live on the border with China and could pick up Chinese TV channels, which opened my eyes. I stole into China, where I remained in hiding for more than 10 years, and eventually found my way to South Korea.
As many as 200,000 defectors are living secretly in China. The Chinese government considers them illegal immigrants — even though they are refugees. As a signatory to the United Nations convention on refugees, China is obligated to not repatriate them, yet it cooperates with North Korea to find defectors and even pays its citizens for turning them in.
This led to a terrifying incident during my time in China. Plainclothes officers arrested me after someone revealed my identity. But since I had quickly learned Chinese, I was able to convince the police that I was a Korean-Chinese citizen. After a few tense hours, they let me go.
I am one of the lucky North Koreans who made it out of China. North Korean defectors in the country are terrified of trying to leave because they are often caught at the borders as they attempt to cross into Mongolia or Laos.
Defectors have to pay brokers to guide them out of China, and they are relatively expensive, sometimes untrustworthy and not easy to find. Reaching Mongolia usually requires several bus rides and then a long journey through the Gobi Desert on foot, while crossing into Laos is a much longer trip, with a high risk of capture by Chinese or Laotian authorities.
I eventually managed to buy a fake Chinese passport and flew to South Korea in 2008, something few defectors are able to do. The next year, after establishing contact with my family in North Korea through a cellphone I had sent them, I returned to China using my new South Korean passport to guide my mom and brother on a 2,000-mile journey from North Korea to Laos, and eventually to freedom in South Korea.
Even though some heartless North Korean, Korean-Chinese and Chinese citizens have exploited vulnerable defectors for money, I witnessed many acts of kindness by the Chinese.
On a bus ride through China, my family and I had talked for hours before a police officer boarded to conduct an inspection. My mother and brother couldn’t speak Chinese, so they pretended to be deaf and mute, and none of the Chinese passengers said anything, sparing us.
In addition to helping North Korea find defectors, the Chinese government gives the regime fuel, technology, economic assistance and political support, but receives little in return.
The only rationale for China’s policy of repatriating defectors is that allowing them to stay would prompt a huge wave of North Koreans into China — creating what the government calls “chaos.” This exaggeration is widely accepted, even though the reality is that most North Koreans cannot even dream of reaching the border because travel is so tightly restricted, and most points on the border are heavily guarded.
Besides, most defectors simply want to pass through China and start a new life in South Korea or another country that will provide them with legal protection. There are about 29,000 defectors in South Korea, which is constitutionally required to accept all North Koreans. Other countries could share some of the burden as well.
In China, the defectors have no rights and cannot legally find jobs, so they must scrape by on the margins of society — which is still less risky than trying to get out of China. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans should not be forced to live like this. They should be allowed to leave China safely.
China should repeal its policy on repatriating defectors and distance itself from such a brutal regime. This would send a positive message to the international community and a stern warning to North Korea that liberalization and other domestic reforms are needed to resolve the refugee crisis.
In the way that many Europeans want to turn away the migrants landing on their shores, some Chinese people argue that their country is simply not obligated to help defectors. That’s a morally dubious position, and, more important, China does not have to prop up the North Korean regime.
In the 1960s, during the chaotic years of famine and the Cultural Revolution in China, many Chinese people sought refuge in North Korea. Beginning in the late 1990s, the situation was reversed, and North Koreans have been fleeing their oppressive government ever since. The Chinese authorities should remember the hospitality their compatriots received in North Korea and treat desperate escapees with dignity and respect.
Genocide Watch is the Coordinator of Alliance Against Genocide. Founded in 1999, the Alliance is made up of over 50 organizations from around the world and was the first coalition of organizations focused completely on preventing genocide.