Background on North Korean Refugees

In light of announcements during the past 24 hours, the Institute conducted its own internal research on the refugee profile of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (more conventionally known as “North Korea”).  We thought you might be interested in what we’ve turned up.

It is thought that approximately 11,000 North Korean refugees and asylum seekers currently reside outside of the North, primarily in northeastern China.  This relatively small number, offered by the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants’ World Refugee Survey 2009 is considered imprecise.  It is assumed that refugees from the North would conceal their identities given that China (1) does not recognize the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and (2) does not recognize North Koreans in China as having a well-founded fear of persecution if returned.  The net result has been the forced return (also known as “refoulement”) of North Korean refugees, upon which, according to human rights groups and the United States Government, refugees have faced harsh interrogation, imprisonment, human rights abuses, and execution.

It is perhaps noteworthy of conditions inside North Korean that 11,000 refugees may have crossed the boarder into China at all, considering the potential of refoulement and the consequences once returned.  It has been argued that China’s inhumane policy is implemented to guard against large-scale flows of refugees out of North Korea and any resulting political destabilization of the region.

For those few who do escape North Korea through China, the country is used as a point of transit, usually to Mongolia, the South, or Western countries.  Officially, UNHCR has 1,195 North Korean cases registered as under its care.  The United States, starting in 2006, agreed to resettle approved North Korean refugees through its P1 and P3 categories.  Since that time, a total of 126 refugees have been resettled in the U.S. according to the Refugee Processing Center.

Images courtesy: North Korea NOW.  Top image of North Korean asylum seekers trying to access a foreign embassy in China with Chinese police intervening.  Bottom image of village of Yanji, China, in the boarder region with North Korea.

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