China, Koreas: Netizens Express Humanitarian Concern Over North Korean Refugees

This post is part of our special coverage on Refugees.

Since February 8, 2012, the Beijing government has arrested more than 20 North Korean refugees whom it plans to repatriate.

The news has been widely reported in South Korea, prompting President Lee Myung-bak to demand that the Chinese government deal with the refugees in accordance with international standards. Lee also promised to provide citizenship to the refugees, and is prepared to raise the issue with the United Nations.

An online petition to UN was set up last week with, and the UN Refugee Agency has also urged [zh] Beijing to process the North Korean refugees in a humanitarian manner.

North Korean refugees in China. Photo from

North Korean refugees in China. Photo from

The spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), however, has argued [zh] that the “North Korean runaways” are not refugees, and that they entered Chinese territories illegally for economic reasons. While extreme nationalists support the government's foreign policy, many concerned Chinese citizens have criticized Beijing for being an accomplice to the murder of innocent civilians, if the refugees are to be deported back to North Korea.

Weibo user ‘Freedom of Speech 85′ posted some background information [zh] on the consequences for those in North Korea who attempt and fail to flee:

言论自由85:据考证,脱北者脱北失败后会受到严厉的惩罚。如送去集中营羁押受虐,甚至被判为“叛 朝鲜国罪”而受到极刑,其在北韩家庭往往也受到牵连。因此联合国敦促中国政府停止遣返难民,给与他们难民身份。根据2005年的一个消息来源,60%到70%的在华脱北者是女性,其中70%到80%成为人口贩卖的受害者。

According to existing evidence, North Korean runaways will face very serious punishment. Most are sent to a concentration camp while some face torture under the accusation of “treason”. Even their family members will suffer from political persecution. This is why the United Nations has urged the Chinese government to stop repatriating refugees and to give them protection. A source back in 2005 shows that 60-70% of North Korean runaways are female, and 70-80% of those end up the victims of human trafficking.

Shanghai resident Ms. Chen points out that [zh] the destination of North Korean runaways is South Korea, another reason why the Chinese government should not send them back to the North:


Why do all these North Koreans choose to leave? Anyone with a bit of political sense can understand why. Why does our government insist on sending them back to a place where they would be murdered? Unlike all other countries in the world which stop illegal immigrants from entering, North Korea kills its own people from even approaching the border. Most North Korean runaways come to China as a way to enter South Korea. Chinese government officials know what the consequence will be of sending these women and kids back to the other side.

Extreme nationalists from the Tiexue (“Iron Blood”) forum, however, support the Beijing government in repatriating the refugees from a strategic point of view [zh]:


1. China should not sacrifice North Korea to please South Korea. China should maintain strategic cooperation with both the North and the South. From the perspective of the security and stability of Northeast Asia, relations with North Korea are more important than with the South.


2. China should not turn its border region into a strategic base for another country. The Chinese government has always been against intervention into other countries’ separatist movements. “North Korean runaways” are not refugees, they have merely fled their own country with a “dream”. China as an independent sovereign country has control over its border, all entry has to be approved. According to international practice, in dealing with illegal immigrants, the Chinese government can detain them and send them back to their own countries. Or else, we would lose control over our border and cause international disputes. It would be harmful to our national interests.


3. Genuine international humanitarianism is not to give exceptional concern to the “North Korean runaway” but to support the stability of North Korea by lifting foreign economic sanctions.

Yet, a lot more ordinary Chinese citizens are speaking from a humanitarian point of view. Below is a selection of comments [zh] in the news thread of the MFA's press conference on Sina Weibo:


哥1985:The repatriation of North Korean runaways is inhumane. Just recall the history of the Cultural Revolution: can they still survive upon repatriation?

元宝天成:The North Korean runaways risked their lives to come here. Even if you don't feed them, you should sympathize with them. We are all human beings. Don't bring shame upon us just to please the tiny fatty (Kim Jong-un).

Eremita-L:To send the runaways back is like killing them with your own hands.

This post is part of our special coverage on Refugees.

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