The tragedy of North Korean refugees in China

Posted by Martyn

Contrary to what one might expect, the North Korea-China border does not have Cold War watchtowers, minefields and heavily armed soldiers with patrol dogs. They arenโ€™t necessary. China returns North Korean refugees, fines anyone who aids them, rewards informers and has a large unofficial army of entrepreneur bounty hunters that hunt down refugees for a couple of dollars per head.

China does this to avoid potential economic burdens. It does not want to see the current thousands of desperate North Korean refugees fleeing starvation and brutality turn into millions as a result of a regime collapse.

The women fleeing across the border believe that nothing could be worse than North Korea’s famine and labour camps. But many change their minds after they reach the “safety” of China:

“I was locked into a house and raped every night,” said Kim Chun-ae, a matronly 51-year-old. “My teenage daughter was sold three times by traffickers. She was ‘recycled’.” Mrs Kim is lucky. After five years of imprisonment in labour camps and a man’s bedroom she finally made it to South Korea. She left behind tens of thousands of women who made the same leap of faith only to end up in China.

South Korean charities say between 100,000 and 300,000 people have escaped North Korea in the nine years since famine swept Kim Jong-il’s impoverished regime, killing two million. Most are still hiding in northern China, terrified of his infamous camps. Aid workers say between 70 and 90 per cent of women defectors have been sold for sex.

Read the entire article. Here is also the full report “An Absence of Choice: The sexual exploitation of North Korean women in China” by Anti-Slavery International.

North Korea recently demanded that all international aid agencies stop humanitarian relief operations in the country by the end of 2005. The demands to block food shipments have more to do with the desire to stop the intrusive outside monitoring that comes with them. The UN agency that provides food to approximately 6.5 million North Koreans, said it was prepared to end a decade of food shipments by January. This will only serve to increase the number of desperate North Korean refugees fleeing into China.

The Discussion: 26 Comments

Is this true? If yes, how come I never heard of it from main stream media. Around two months ago, pbs has a show about a South Korean lady went to North Korean to find her relatives. It looks like the life in North Korean is happy, although it is kind of routine, dull and isloated. For me, the people there is contented with their simple life.

October 1, 2005 @ 2:01 pm | Comment

i am not sure about the quantification. 70-90% seems to be an exaggeration.

but it is true, and there are a lot of such cases.

i had been to the chinese border with N Korea. they told me you can ‘see’ how poor the other side is just by looking at the worn-out houses and no light in nights. the typical response whenever i asked about N Korea is “extreme poverty”

they also told me many N Korean women were in the sex trade. well, exploitation is not uncommon even for the underprivileged han women from rural. i can imagine that it could only be worse for the N Korean with no passport.
(most of those who exploit them, are Korean Chinese, because they know the language and can communicate with them)

however, the reason i am skeptical with the 70-90% figure is that many of the N Koreans are taken by their relatives in China and they are not treated too badly. we need to believe many of the ‘hosts’ are also human, and fellow koreans, and that the harsh slave treatment should not be the majority of cases.
also, from what i was told, the local govt do not actively crack down on these refugee as long as they keep a low profile. local officials (many are korean chinese as well) understand how bad it is across the border and would pretend the problem is not there. (i.e. provided it does not hurt his carrer and, for some – receives his bribe)

OTOH, since there is no competition to jobs (unemployment rate is very low is china), the local are not hostile to them. but they do look down upon them and try to exploit them by paying much low wages/etc. (Han Chauvanism, and Korean Chinese chauvanism not uncommon)

i am actually quite sad that this thread received only 1 comment, while there are a few dozens bashing the CCP pr0paganda (which is really easy to find fault of), or in the past, about t1bet/xinjiang/ta1wan (taking a simplistic stand agaisnt the CCP is also easy and convenient).

if we can shift our attention into making the lives of these people (N Korea refugee, suppressed/underprivilege class and ethnic groups in rural) better and finding some incremental solutions to help them (even if it is baby-step improvements), wouldn’t this be something more constructive for us and those this blog attracts?

October 1, 2005 @ 7:44 pm | Comment

I’m intrigued by one of my North Korean students who seems like an All-American boy; one would never have guessed his nationality. His father apparently sells cars and such expertise has allowed him to live most of his life in Paris, holiday in England and Gibraltar, etc etc etc. (I suspect his father sells uranium). He assures me things are looking up in his country and can tell how optimistic people are after his time last month shopping at the open market in the capital, which shows signs of economic liberalisation. He certainly doesn’t seem like a stooge as he makes disparaging comments about the leadership and the North’s role in the Korean conflict (which I teach him in class).

October 1, 2005 @ 7:56 pm | Comment

I sometimes wonder about the view we get of North Korea. I have little doubt that, in most ways, it’s a thoroughly miserable place. But it’s also well closed to media, which leaves a large vaccuum waiting to be filled by an agenda-led US propaganda apparatus with an interest in painting as dire a picture as possible. This isn’t to suggest that all is sunny in bright inside Chaoxian; just that it’s sometimes hard to see the real picture.

China has nightmares of a North Korean government collapse and a huge stream of refugees across the northern border. From this article, maybe South Korea should be more worried than China…

October 1, 2005 @ 8:26 pm | Comment

Will, you’re right about South Korean attitudes towards reuinification.

The World Bank estimates unification costs at US$2โ€“US3 trillion or 5-6 times South Koreaโ€™s GDP or 10 times greater than the cost of German unification.

The truth is that South Koreans are not willing to compromise their high living standards for unification. Especially since any advantages might not become visible for at least 20 or so years. South Koreans want it done gradually (i.e. painlessly and cheaply with massive amounts of US, UN and Japanese cash).

South Korea’s population is 49 million, annual income $US19,200 per capita. North Korea has 23 million people with a per capita income of US$1,400 (estimate). Therefore, the thinking goes that unification would create a nation with 70 million and an average per capita income of about US$13,500 or a 1/3 drop in South Korean annual income but an almost 10 times higher income for the North.

These are just the financial burdens. On top of that you’ll have one of the largest standing armies in the world to decommission; a nuclear weapons arsenal that could possibly end up anywhere in the world; a country with little modern infrastructure; one of the most brain-washed hermit populations in the world that will have to quickly adapt to doing things for themselves in a capitalist system that they have been brought up to despise.

Really, initital unification costs are just the beginning of the problems.

October 1, 2005 @ 9:07 pm | Comment

Also, diplomatically, China does not want a strong and unified Korea right on it’s eastern flank, especially one that would be dominated by a long US-allied South Korea.

October 1, 2005 @ 9:09 pm | Comment

Now that it is a really good point and actually goes a long way towards explaining Chinese support for NK. So it’s funny. Everyone agrees that North Korea’s is a desperately awful regime that should be replaced with something different, but the two countries in the best position to help make that happen peacefully have vested interest in the status quo for completely different reasons.

October 1, 2005 @ 9:12 pm | Comment

Regarding the diplomatic alliegence of any future unified Korea this is how my thinking goes:

The South Korean economy would be on its knees for years to come – and that’s assuming that the South Koreans were willing to accept the price – which they most certainly are NOT. From what I understand, South Koreans rufuse to compromise even one iota of their modern living standards.

Therefore, whether unification comes gradually or quickly, South Korea expects (demands?) that other countries foot the bill. Enter the US and Japan – the two richest countries in the world with vested interests in any unified Korea.

The Americans and the Japanese would undoubtedly exact a high diplomatic price for financial assistance to South Korea. Perhaps US/UN bases on North Korean soil? Perhaps a joint defence treay that would bring Korea solidly into the US/Japan camp?

Anyway, US/Japanese financial assistance would come at a price – which the South Koreans would pay. I also have a feeling that this particular price will be far from popular in Beijing.

Beijing would obviously demand to be part of any international team handling unification to protect its own interests . HOwever, the US and Japan would run the show, of that I’m sure.

October 1, 2005 @ 9:46 pm | Comment

Sun-Bin muses:

…many of the N Koreans are taken by their relatives in China and they are not treated too badly. we need to believe many of the ‘hosts’ are also human, and fellow koreans, and that the harsh slave treatment should not be the majority of cases.

You should read the full report linked in the post when you have time. It will give you a better idea a to where the information came from. I also don’t share you optimism about the treatment of refugees, and I certainly don’t share your belief that most people dealing with refugees and the sex industry are “good” people. My own view is that there are far too many people here trying desperately to make as much money as possible and there’s little room for being “good” or “nice”.

also, from what i was told, the local govt do not actively crack down on these refugee as long as they keep a low profile. local officials (many are korean chinese as well) understand how bad it is across the border and would pretend the problem is not there.

I’ve heard the direct opposite. There will always be those refugees who manage to hide and make their way via a very indirect route to South Korea but these are the minority. Dandong (Chinese town on the North Korea border) has many bounty hunters, for example, who scour the rubbish tips and visit the usual hiding places for refugees. They earn their living doing this. I think the bounty is 25 yuan per North Korean refugee.

October 1, 2005 @ 10:01 pm | Comment

sun bin’s transparent attempt to
“guide” the discussions in the way the CCP wants:

“…i am actually quite sad that this thread received only 1 comment, while there are a few dozens bashing the CCP”

Awww, oh mercy me, sun bin, you say you feel SAD? Oh, how sweet and sensitive of you.

And it is very sad whenever anyone makes the Communist Party feel bad.

Good God. Why should anyone not think you’re just a shill for the CCP, sun bin? One of those thousands of internet “monitors” the CCP hires to “guide” internet discussions?

Come on. You say you feel “SAD?”
Aww. Oh it’s very sad when mean nasty people make the Communist Party cry.

October 1, 2005 @ 11:24 pm | Comment


what you said is true, e.g. for dandong. if you go to smaller counties the influence of the mandarin becomes thinner.

i totally agree with you that many of the officials are corrupt and most businessmen would not hesitate to extract another buck from these poor refugee, and that a huge number of the women (maybe as many as half) are involved in sex trade.

what i was saying is, it is just very hard for me to believe that 70%-90% people, any people in any part of the world, would go for the extremely cruelty in treating another human being.
depending on how you define as “gruesome condition”, if you are talking about beating up and chaining the prostitute, numbers like 10-30% seems to be intolerably high.

i have also met and talk to (in personal) some young men (from N Korea) who worked as waiter in restaurants (but these are perhaps the more lucky ones, who could also speak chinese fluently)

…and yes, i said this without reading the report, but i plan to read it.

October 1, 2005 @ 11:43 pm | Comment

calm down ivan,

i am just trying to ask for pragmatism.
other than feeling good happy for yourself, does your comment help any of the people (eg tibetan, uighur, N koreans refugees) in any way? of course you are free to do that, anywhere, any time.
some of your writing are actually quite humorous (i say it with no sarcasm) and i laugh with you.

i just believe there are something we can do to really help these people. e.g. other lisa’s bringing up this topic is one of such deed. it can be critical of the CCP, but it has a focus of pleading for help for those who need help.

have a nice day.

October 1, 2005 @ 11:51 pm | Comment

about the korean unification.

yes, the SK obviously read the lesson of the Germans.

but i seriously doubt if SK would let the Japanese in. The US is ok, but SK would rather starve than asking help from Japan.

as for China, recently a PLA General (Liu Yazhou, i think i found the essay from a link in Simonworld) advocated China sponsoring (not financially) the reunification of Korea, to counter the threat from Japan — but he may not represent the mainstream inside CCP.

most chinese certainly feel closer to the koreans (if you believe in samuel huntington). in history, only china has invaded korea, korea has never threatened or invaded china in the whole of history (except in perhaps very brief period), — unlike mongolians/tibetans who gave the old dynasties a lot of headache.

October 2, 2005 @ 12:04 am | Comment


there is this simple line of thinking in the west (also in china, i think) that splitting another country makes it weaker and easily manipulated.
— you can find thousands of examples in middle east, africa, europe, and arguably subcontinental india. and you know why PRC over-reacts with separatist movement and is always suspicious of the West’s comment on this issue.

but if you are at a weak and defensive position, sometimes it is good to strengthen a ‘buffer neighbor’ if you are quite sure it will tilt to your side when there is conflict with the hostile power across. esp if you know this buffer neighbor will unlikely to rival you.

a reunified and strong korea (whether under strong US influence or not) is good for peace in East Asia. whether china or japan becomes aggressive, a strong korea would serve as a stabilizing counter weight.

October 2, 2005 @ 12:18 am | Comment

…if the logic above holds, a unified korea is also good for the people in the world, including the american people.
although some myopic neocon hawk might prefer korea to be divided and weak.

October 2, 2005 @ 12:21 am | Comment

i have scanned the report.

i think the case studies are very plausible and perhaps quite representative of the situation.

many are tricked and coerced into being abused and sold. some even thought it is better than starve to death at home, or be put into gulags at home.

the source of the problem lies in the dim propsective of being caught and deported. they would rather risk their lives or be exploited/abused to avoid.

so this needs china to change the deportation policy.

there are 2 reasons china does not want to change this
1. fear of encouraging more waves of refugee — if that happen, the population pressure may even lead to hostility from local korean chinese or han chinese
2. fear of alienated the N Korean govt. China is the only nation that can (sort of) talk to NK in the 6-party talk.

to solve this problem
1. the world need to assure china that they would help to should the refugee (like what they did to the vietnamese in late 1970s early 1980s). SK is doing this today, but they could only do this as the numbers are not large.
2. the NK nuke problem need to be resolved. until then china will still be wary of NK’s reaction. this is a really tough one to solve. yielding to NK’s request of LWR maybe one, but NK does not have a good track record of keeping promises ๐Ÿ™

in between, there should be something we could do, but i can’t think of any good one.
maybe we could donate to buy these people from the traffikkers, but that would only encourage people into this dark biz.

October 2, 2005 @ 1:01 am | Comment

the recommendation of the report makes sense in terms of granting ‘refugee sur place’ status. the UN can do this anytime. it is up to the West to shoulder this responsibility.

the recommendation about China is for the ideal situation. it has neglected the political repercussion of the China-NK relationship.
however, UN should convince China to at least let those are proved to be abused not be deported back. and China should convince NK that they need to let a subset of the caught refugee go, using UN/external pressue as an ‘excuse’.

all the recommendation regarding NK are not implementable.

October 2, 2005 @ 1:15 am | Comment

all the recommendation regarding NK are not implementable except this one
“international community to invest in economic development projects in the harder hit NE provinces of the DPRK”

but i suspect all of DPRK is hard hit all the time. the fact that they only captured data from NE provinces is that these ppl are “lucky” in that it borders china and the border is relatively easy to cross.

October 2, 2005 @ 1:19 am | Comment

As said above, rural Chinese women are exploited so god help the North Korean refugees who dare to cross the border into China. At best, they’ll be returned to face imprisonment, at worst they’ll be sold to some piss-poor farmer.

China allows this for what? To serve its own narrow interests that’s why. I can imagine the power that Chinese men have over these women once they are caught, all the men have to do is threaten to turn them in to the Chinese police. The women would do anything to avoid that, they would do anything to avoid being sent back to North Korea.

Therefore, Sun-Bin, how many Chinese men do you think would not choose to make a quick buck under these circumstances? Jilin Province is poor, how many economic opportunities do you think are avilable to these men? I’d say near enough nil, apart form these women who come to China looking for help and get sold like cattle.

October 2, 2005 @ 8:02 am | Comment

I’m far from a Korea expert, but I would think the best solution, given that China and SK do not want unification now is for NK to become richer where it is

Give NK the same terms of trade with the US and Japan as China – set up some textile and shirt factories, and let them move up to plastic flip-flops then clock radios, etc.

Try to assert pressure on NK to reform its political system at a pace NK (with pressure from China, SK, Japan and the US) feels is reasonable – local elections and such, like the “great steps” Saudi Arabia is taking.

And if they’ll agree to close inspections then give them their light water reactor. Why not?

At least Wal-Mart shoppers in the US would get a lot of cheap shirts from this deal and NK would be able to buy more food.

October 2, 2005 @ 8:18 am | Comment


you can try to educate and force these men to behave. but it only takes a few thugs to cause the damage. so i really don’t know any better solution than removing the threat to the poor korean women.

there is a partial ad hoc solution if you look at the map. russia can help in this case. i.e. if there is a relative easy and safe pathway to smuggle these people to russian Far East, and Russia agree to let them go to SK or other countries. The NK women have an alternative.

the reason for this proposal is
1. it is hard for NK to cross the border to Russia because the river is wide and deep (same reason why you have less in NW Korea along Yalu River/Dandong, the river is wider and deeper, and the banks are easier to patrol). so without China accepting the refugee, they can try to turn a blind eye and let them flee to russia
2. russia do not fee a large scale exodus from NK, (China acts as a buffer). so it is ‘safer’ for them to permit transit today.

so i think the ASI should add this into its recommendation

October 2, 2005 @ 10:16 am | Comment

Daily linklets 3rd October

Jonathan Dresner is calling up for submissions and hosts of a Carnvial of Asian History. An excellent idea and I’m looking forward to the first edition. Please help spread the word. Pundita takes issue with Spengler’s piece on demographics and Chinese…

October 3, 2005 @ 1:14 am | Comment

China expels North Korean refugees

f you’ve been following media reports about North Korea, then chances are you’ve also heard stories of North Koreans slipping over the borders to China, or trying to scale the walls of embassies in Beijing in order to get asylum. For most refugees, thi…

October 11, 2005 @ 12:08 am | Comment

Sun bin,

I’m not exactly sure how the West can shoulder any responsibility in this matter in terms of helping with North Korean refugees. China is NK’s biggest backer, ergo it should be responsible for NK. China can turn the lights off any time it wishes – it did so some years ago. Ergo it has the most influence.

As it is, China helps deport refugees back to NK not just because it is worried about a “flood”, but also because it keeps the Pyongyang government happy and the officials who had the poor sods over get paid for their trouble.

If China really wanted to help out, the world would chip in as it could. But you shouldn’t make it seem like we’re responsible as well. China is the best position to help these people, but it doesn’t. And before you complain about wealth, etc, look at Pakistan. It is poorer than China but has vast numbers of refugees within its borders. Some have left to go back to Afghanistan, but before then the numbers were even larger.

So as China is richer, has a larger army, etc why can’t it be as generous as Pakistan?

October 13, 2005 @ 5:46 am | Comment

“had the poor sods over”


“hand the poor sods over”



October 13, 2005 @ 5:48 am | Comment

A practical solution to the North Korean refugee problem, inspired by studying maps

October 24, 2005 @ 2:58 pm | Comment

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