By Kate Allanson, MA North Korean Studies Student, University of Central Lancashire:
A life underground or risk repatriation. This is the choice many North Korean migrants are faced with once they cross the Yalu River, setting foot on Chinese ground. North Koreans hold no refugee status once in China, receive no governmental aid and encounter no charitable organisations to help them begin a new life. Instead they are branded ‘economic migrants’, a term which renders them illegal and at risk of deportation back to North Korea.
But why do so many North Koreans choose a life of paranoia over a familiar life in their homeland? The answer to this question has evolved over time. The surge of North Koreans fleeing to China began with the Arduous March, an event that would dramatically change the lives of many North Korean nationals: a devastating famine afflicted the country from 1994 to 1998, causing the deaths of an estimated 2.5 to 3.5 million people. Many starving North Koreans viewed fleeing over the Yalu River to China as their best chance of survival. However, in recent years, access to food is no longer the primary motivation for many crossing into China. Guarantees of better job opportunities, the prospect of a rich, loving Chinese husband and a life with greater civil liberties lure many of these North Koreans across to China. It is only once they cross the river that they understand these promises could not be further from the reality which awaits them.
While both sexes undoubtedly experience the hardships of life in China as an illegal, it is women who are most vulnerable. Stories of female North Korean migrants and their experiences in China often gain more international media exposure than those of their male counterparts. In this sense, North Korean migrants are not dissimilar to other refugees and those who find themselves exiled or displaced. While male North Korean migrants also encounter significant hardships over their journey to safety, male migrants who remain in China often leave North Korea in search of work. Because their labour in the rural areas is considered valuable, they commonly enjoy a higher level of protection than women.
Trafficking, sexual exploitation and abuse are just some of the fates which befall North Korean women in China. A report by Korea Future Initiative published in May 2019 uncovered an industry for trafficked female migrants was worth an estimated $105 million annually. Without the protection of the law, many women simply have no choice but to accept their position, as the alternative, repatriation, could be far worse. Women who are sold as wives are often transported to rural China, where the male to female ratio remains unbalanced as a result of the one-child policy implemented in 1979. While marriage to a Chinese man may give these women some temporary comfort, it does not secure them Chinese citizenship nor any safety against repatriation. These women often suffer physical, sexual, mental, and emotional abuse, all while being threatened with exposure to the authorities if they do not remain obedient. Many North Korean migrant brides have also reported being cast away from these Chinese families once a male child has been born, left at an immense risk of repatriation or further trafficking.
Some North Korean women are sold into prostitution, subject to a life in the Chinese sex industry where few have the means to escape. The status of these women is non-existent and hidden; having any position of prestige would threaten their lives in China, meaning their only choice is to remain obedient and under the radar. Other North Korean women are sold as factory workers, working long hours in backbreaking conditions for little to no wage. They may escape the sexual abuse suffered by trafficked North Korean wives and prostitutes, but are instead left vulnerable to labor exploitation and Chinese crackdowns on illegals.
While these are not the fates of all female North Koreans who flee to China, human trafficking has increasingly become an issue at the China-North Korea border. As China is both a signatory of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, as well as a member of the Executive Committee of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), China has a legal obligation to protect and assist those who wish to seek refuge within their borders. In the past China has fulfilled these obligations, most notably granting refugee status to over 250,000 Vietnamese following the Vietnam war, exhibiting China as more than capable of aiding mass influxes of refugees. But in recent years rapid economic growth and an already immense population has led China to become increasingly unwilling to grant refugee status.
It is therefore my belief that the root of the problem remains China’s classification of North Korean migrants. China should first reverse the decision to class them as illegal economic migrants, instead granting them refugee status and fulfilling its obligation to the UN. Granting these migrants refuge would not only give them legal status within China, it would also aid them in finding work, allow them to have access to refugee groups and ensure their safety from repatriation and trafficking. In writing this article I hope to bring awareness to the plight of North Korean migrants in China and illustrate the point that for many North Koreans, until they are recognised as refugees their lives in China are limited to two choices, a life underground or repatriation.