China returns 60 Asylum Seekers to North Korea

China's forced return of 60 asylum seekers to North Korea raises global alarms about human rights violations.

China returns 60 Asylum Seekers to North Korea
A close up of a tree branch, by Engin Akyurt, via Unsplash, March 31st, 2022


Marina Sáenz

Human Rights Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence


According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the forced return of approximately 60 North Korean asylum seekers by the Chinese government on April 26th has sparked international concern over their safety and human rights (Yoon 2024). These individuals now face the severe risk of enforced disappearance, torture, sexual violence, wrongful imprisonment, forced labor, and even execution upon their return to North Korea. This alarming incident followed a high-level meeting on April 13th between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Zhao Leji, China’s third highest official, heightening fears among North Korean exiles and human rights activists that China may accelerate its repatriation efforts (Yoon 2024). The move not only underscores the perilous plight of North Korean asylum seekers but also highlights China's contentious approach to asylum seekers amid its international human rights obligations.

The forced repatriation of North Korean asylum seekers is deeply rooted in the complex and often contentious political relationship between China and North Korea. Historically, China has been one of North Korea's closest allies, providing economic and diplomatic support to the isolated regime. This alliance dates back to the Korean War (1950-1953), during which China played a crucial role in supporting North Korea against South Korean and United Nations forces. China's stance on North Korean asylum seekers is influenced by its bilateral agreements and broader geopolitical strategy. China's classification of asylum seekers as illegal "economic migrants" under a 1986 bilateral border protocol serves to justify their repatriation, sidestepping their status as asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch has reported over 670 cases of forced returns by China since 2020, highlighting the scale of the issue.

The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in the region illuminated the severe risks confronting North Korean escapees, ranging from torture and sexual violence to arbitrary detention, and even the horrors of forced abortion and infanticide upon their return. Consequently, the COI's findings underscore the urgent need to treat any North Korean asylum seeker as a refugee, deserving of appropriate processing and protection under international law.

Under international law, China is bound by its obligations as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, its 1967 Protocol, and the United Nations Convention against Torture. These legal agreements mandate China to adhere to the principle of nonrefoulement, preventing the forced return of individuals to a country where they face persecution, torture, or grave harm. However, despite China's assertions of addressing North Korean escapees in compliance with both domestic and international laws, as well as humanitarian principles, there are notable deficiencies in its approach. In 2004, the UN Refugee Agency designated North Korean escapees in China as "persons of concern," deserving of humanitarian safeguards. It recommended that China establish a special humanitarian status for them, providing temporary documentation and access to essential services. Despite repeated calls from the agency for protection against refoulement for these vulnerable individuals, China has yet to implement a formal screening process or issue the necessary “temporary identity certificates” as outlined in Article 46 of the Exit and Entry Administration Law enacted in 2012.

This failure not only jeopardises the rights and safety of North Korean asylum seekers but also contradicts China's legal obligations and professed commitment to humanitarian values.


Sources and further reading:

Lina Yoon. (May 8th 2024). China Forcibly Returns 60 Refugees to North Korea. Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Council. (7 February 2014). Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. A/HRC/25/CRP.1