Thirty Minutes of Freedom

The nine North Korean defectors recently repatriated. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images (
The nine North Korean defectors recently repatriated. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images (

Just thirty minutes after this photo was taken the children pictured were arrested. Why? Because they are North Korean. These nine young defectors (aged between 15 and 23), believed to be orphans, (or ‘wandering swallows’) had escaped their home country in search of a better life in South Korea, entering Laos via China. However, on 10 May, shortly after arriving in Laos, the group of defectors posing as students were arrested by Laotian authorities, along with two South Korean missionaries who had been helping them to reach South Korea. It has since been confirmed that the children have been forcibly repatriated to North Korea via China where they will undoubtedly face many years in a labour camp in brutal conditions, or even execution. The UN has expressed its ‘extreme concern’ for the childrens’ safety, but calls for leniency are likely to fall on deaf ears. The childrens’ lives now lie in the hands of Kim Jong-un.

Although this is believed to be the first time that Laos has repatriated North Koreans, the forcible repatriation of North Korean defectors is unfortunately far from rare. China, usually the first port of call for defectors, has long repatriated North Koreans, claiming that they are not refugees but rather ‘illegal economic migrants’. This policy of repatriation was adopted in the late 1990s at the height of the North Korean famine, fearing a flood of North Korean refugees into the country. Repatriation of North Korean defectors found in China is even provided for in a bilateral agreement between the two countries (Mutual Cooperation Protocol for the Work of Maintaining National Security and Social Order in the Border Areas, Art 4).

This policy of forcible repatriation has a devastating impact on North Korean defectors in two ways. First, if caught in China, defectors are sent back home to face extremely harsh punishments which breach numerous human rights instruments. As a minimum, defectors face five years’ hard labour in a prison camp, but may also be sentenced to life imprisonment or even execution. Defectors who have had contact with South Koreans (as did the nine children above), Christian missionaries, or foreigners, are singled out for particularly harsh punishment. Upon return to North Korea, defectors are also at immediate risk of torture and other forms of proscribed ill treatment by the authorities.

Secondly, those defectors ‘lucky’ enough to escape arrest by the Chinese authorities are forever living in fear of return and are more vulnerable and isolated than ever before.  Having escaped a regime which violates all of their basic rights, defectors find themselves victims of further human rights violations in China. North Korean women are particularly vulnerable and are often the victim of trafficking, forced into marriages, prostitution or labour. Ms Seok left North Korea at 20 years old and was forced to live with a Han Chinese man who would beat her. Sometimes she was kicked so hard in the stomach that she could not breathe. She escaped her captor a year later. Or how about Ms Lee who was sold to a Han Chinese man for a mere 1,000 yuan (around £100)? China has begun to take some measures against traffickers but as argued by Lee Hae Young, it is unacceptable to free North Korean women from traffickers and then return them to near starvation and punishment in North Korea.

Finally, not only is forcible repatriation of North Korean defectors morally repugnant, it is unlawful. China is a state party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention). Under this Convention, China is prohibited from expelling or returning a refugee where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion (non-refoulement, Art 33). Non-refoulement is a customary principle of international law and arguably also a norm of jus cogens which binds all states without exception. China attempts to circumvent the Convention by arguing that North Korean defectors are instead economic migrants. However, as noted by Haggard and Nolan, nearly all North Korean defectors have a prima facie claim to refugee status on numerous grounds including: persecution through human rights violations already experienced or fear experiencing in North Korea; persecution in receipt of food in North Korea which is distributed according to loyalty (food as a weapon), and the extremely harsh punishments upon return which render them refugees sur place.

North Korean defectors have risked their lives to escape the world’s most repressive regime and this policy of forcible repatriation condemns them to death or other harsh punishments upon return, as well as making them vulnerable to further violations in China. Upon leaving North Korea their freedom should last more than thirty minutes.



‘The North Korean Refugee Crisis: Human Rights and International Response’ (S Haggard & M Nolan, published by US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2006).

‘Lives For Sale: Personal Accounts of Women Fleeing North Korea to China’ (Lee Hae Young, published by US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2009)

‘Laos assailed for sending young defectors back to North Korea’ (LA Times, June 2 2013):,0,7718252.story

Mutual Cooperation Protocol for the Work of Maintaining National Security and Social Order in the Border Areas, Art 4

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951, art 33

‘UN ‘extremely concerned’ for repatriated North Korean defectors’ (The Guardian, 3 June 2013):


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