US discusses North Korea with China, raises repatriation concerns

Beijing routinely labels North Koreans as illegal ‘economic migrants’ and forcibly repatriates them.
By Taejun Kang for RFA
2024.05.09
Taipei, Taiwan
US discusses North Korea with China, raises repatriation concerns U.S. Deputy Special Representative Jung Pak speaks in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.
Ahn Young-joon/Pool via Reuters

The senior U.S. official for North Korea met with her Chinese counterpart in Tokyo and expressed concern about the forcible repatriation of North Koreans from China, the U.S. State Department said.

During Thursday’s discussions with China’s Special Representative on Korean Peninsula Affairs Liu Xiaoming, Jung Pak noted North Korea’s “provocative and irresponsible rhetoric toward its neighbors,” the department said in a statement.

“She [Pak] also expressed continued U.S. concerns regarding the forcible repatriation of North Koreans, including asylum seekers, to the DPRK and called on Beijing to uphold its non-refoulement obligations,” said the department. DPRK, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is North Korea’s official name. 

The U.N. principle of non-refoulement is supposed to guarantee that “no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.”

Pak also stressed concern about Pyongyang’s deepening military cooperation with Moscow, saying that Russia’s veto of a mandate extension for a U.N. panel that monitored North Korean sanctions would hamper efforts to implement U.N. Security Council resolutions, according to the statement. 

Pak’s remarks came after international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch published a report on Wednesday saying China had recently forcibly returned about 60 North Koreans.

“The Chinese government forcibly returned about 60 North Korean refugees on April 26, putting them at grave risk of enforced disappearance, torture, sexual violence, wrongful imprisonment, forced labor, and execution,” said HRW. 

It cited Stephen Kim, the pseudonym of an underground missionary, as saying that the Chinese government had forcibly returned the North Koreans from China’s Jilin and Liaoning provinces. 

Kim told HRW that the Chinese authorities had apprehended at least 92 North Koreans since January but could not confirm whether anyone among the 92 was forcibly returned on April 26, adding that it was highly unlikely.

This round of forced returns came soon after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with China’s third highest official, Zhao Leji, on April 13. HRW noted that the meeting had “raised concerns among North Koreans in exile and rights activists that China might speed up forced repatriations of North Koreans.”

Beijing routinely labels North Koreans as illegal “economic migrants” and forcibly repatriates them under a 1986 bilateral border protocol with Pyongyang. 

China’s foreign ministry said in October last year there were no North Korean “defectors” in China but North Koreans had illegally entered for economic reasons and that China always handled the issue according to the law.

HRW earlier reported that it confirmed China had forcibly returned more than 670 North Koreans since Pyongyang closed its northern border in early 2020. This includes more than 500 North Koreans on Oct. 9, 2023; 40 on Sept. 18, 2023; 80 on Aug. 29, 2023; and about 50 in July 2021.

In Tokyo, Pak also discussed North Korea with her South Korean and Japanese counterparts and underscored the importance of maintaining close trilateral cooperation in addressing issues around North Korea, including security threat, human rights and humanitarian challenges created by the North, the department said in a separate statement.

Edited by Mike Firn.

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