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‘Some of them will be sent to … camps,’ some ‘may be executed’

North Koreans who have escaped to China need help to avoid being sent back against their will, and pressure on Beijing from South Korea alone is not enough to stop it, a former North Korean diplomat told Radio Free Asia.

“It is important to send a strong message of international unity to prevent the Chinese authorities from forcibly repatriating [them],” said Thae Yong-ho, who is now a member of the South Korean parliament. “It is difficult to stop it with only the demands of the South Korean government.”

The remarks come a week after Beijing secretly repatriated more than 500 North Koreans on Oct. 9, the day after the conclusion of the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.

Thae, who in 2016 defected with his family to the South while serving as Pyongyang’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, is visiting Washington D.C. to inspect the South Korean Embassy in his role as a member of the national assembly representing Seoul’s wealthy Gangnam district. 

He is scheduled to meet with U.S. State Department officials and members of Congress to discuss the forced repatriation issue.  

A bus carrying escapees from North Korea crosses the bridge to North Korea’s Sinuiju from China’s Dandong on Aug. 29, 2023. Credit: Kim Ji Eun/RFA

Thae said that Seoul had been repeatedly trying to raise the issue with Beijing.

“Foreign Minister Park Jin and Unification Minister Kim Young-ho have both publicly requested that China stop repatriating North Koreans, ” said Thae. “Also, during the Hangzhou Asian Games, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo visited China and met with President Xi Jinping, demanding that North Koreans not be repatriated.” 

Even with the public requests and off-the-record pleas, China continues to justify forced repatriation by claiming that North Korean escapees in China are  “illegal displaced persons” rather than refugees.

More than words

The distinction is not simply an issue of semantics. If escapees are not refugees, then China argues it is not bound to protect them under the U.N. Refugee Convention and as illegal immigrants, the principle of non-refoulement does not apply to them.

Beijing maintains that it must repatriate North Koreans who fled the country because it is bound by two agreements it has with Pyongyang, the 1960 PRC-DPRK Escaped Criminals Reciprocal Extradition Treaty and the 1986 Mutual Cooperation Protocol for the Work of Maintaining National Security and Social Order and the Border Areas.

If they are made to return to North Korea, many escapees will face a grim fate, Thae said.

“Some of them will be sent to concentration camps for [at least] several months of detention and forced labor, and if they are found to have tried to escape North Korea and go to South Korea, they may be executed,” Thae said.

Thae recalled his own fears of forced repatriation at the time when he decided to defect.

“At the time, I was also very worried that some unexpected variable might arise in the process of defecting from North Korea,” he said. “People still detained in detention facilities in China are probably very anxious and worried that they will be forcibly repatriated to North Korea.   

During his U.S. trip, Thae has plans to meet with American officials to request that they join their voices in opposition against forced repatriation of North Koreans in China.

“We plan to deliver a letter to President Biden appealing to the U.S. government to speak up [on this issue],” said Thae. “We plan to deliver it to the lawmakers [Monday]. There should be a campaign nationwide and globally calling for an end to forced repatriations.    

Thae attended an event hosted by human rights groups in front of the White House on Monday afternoon to raise awareness about the issue.

New US Envoy

On Friday, Washington swore in Julie Turner as its special envoy for North Korea Human Rights, ending a six-year vacancy for the position. 

She arrived in Seoul on Monday for a three-day visit. After meeting with Foreign Minister Park, the two sides promised to work together to improve North Korean human rights.

Addressing a forum of rights activists and North Korean escapees in South Korea, Turner acknowledged that the United States often brings up the issue of forced repatriations in discussions with Beijing.

“So I again hope that the PRC will not [repatriate North Koreans] and we will continue to remind them of their international obligations, but I can’t say that I believe that they will not,” she said.

Julie Turner, the United States’ new special envoy for North Korea Human Rights, arrived in Seoul on Monday for a three-day visit. Credit: U.S. Department of State

Thae said that he was regretful that he and Turner missed each other as his trip to the U.S. coincided with her trip to Korea.

“We plan to meet at an early date and discuss specific ways to help the U.S. speak out more for North Korean human rights issues in the international community and what strategies and strategies can be used to solve the North Korean human rights issue and stop forced repatriation,” he said.

Translated by Eugene Whong. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.