Exploring the Connection between China and North Korea: Part II

In Seoul Train, often the Chinese government did not seem to consider the North Korean defectors as eligible for asylum. Therefore, I will first clarify the definition of refugee and asylum-seeker as stated by the United Nations Refugee Agency. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention that established the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “a refugee is someone who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his [or her] nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself [or herself] of the protection of that country,” and an asylum seeker is “someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.”[1]

According to “North Korean Defectors: Their Life and Well-Being after Defection,” the term “North Korean defector” is either defined using the definition found in the 1951 Refugee Convention or defined as “any North Koreans who have moved out of North Korea with no official permit” (67).[1] Therefore, if Chinese officials regard North Korean defectors under the 1951 Refugee Convention definition for refugees, China also has an obligation to protect and offer asylum to them. However, since the term “North Korean defector” is used vaguely, Chinese officials are not necessarily responsible for the defectors if they apply the second definition to the defectors they find in China. If they are “North Koreans who have moved out of North Korea with no official permit,” one can go as far as to say that Chinese officials are responsible for turning them into North Korean officials.

However, with all the current hardship and misfortune, why do the Chinese officials portrayed in Seoul Train more often than not seem to use the second definition applied to North Korean defectors? Although the early 1990s witnessed a flood of defectors motivated by political reasons, the flood of 1995, the growing economic crisis, and food shortage led to an increase in the number of defectors leaving to neighboring nations like China in the latter half of the decade without political motivation.[2] The new wave of defectors risks their lives to escape hunger, malnutrition, and starvation, so the question is: why do they face such fear of arrest and forced deportation in China as seen in Seoul Train? Why does China have such a harsh policy on refugees in slight of the current situation?

The situation in China reflects the problems in North Korea. According to Ko, Chung, and Oh, North Korea’s economic growth rate had fallen below zero by the 1990s and eventually food distribution halted in 1995, at the same time as the floods that led to starvation. As the economic system deteriorated, the social system also began to fall apart. Although trading and cultivation had formerly been under the complete jurisdiction of the North Korean government, informal trading, private cultivation, and free markets arose throughout North Korea; what’s more, the authorities now allow what would have once been considered illegal under the centralized economic system.

On a more negative note, peddling, pilfering, begging, and other deviant behaviors have also been on the rise. With so many changes and the government’s inability to provide people with enough to survive, the government also lost control over people’s movement within the nation, and, ultimately, into the bordering nations. Previously, North Koreans needed permits to travel within the country, but the lack of food has permitted North Koreans to travel in search of food without permits – a situation that has led to illegal border crossing.[3]

Because North Korea shares so much of its border with China, many defectors cross the border between North Korea and China. The shallow rivers that form the border between North Korea and China make for a much easier passage than the border North Korea shares with South Korea, which is “strewn with barbed wire, dotted with foxholes, laced with land mines, and guarded by sentries” (72).[4] Therefore, it is no wonder that many North Korean defectors first enter China before considering asylum in South Korea.

Having arrived in China to escape destitution and starvation, some of the members of the defector community get involved in such illicit behavior as stealing, criminal organizations, forging official documents such as passports, and human trafficking. Also, China has had a close connection to North Korea. Therefore, China has thus far taken a very hard line against North Korean defectors and treats them as “illegal immigrants” or “economic floaters,” in other words, unqualified for legal protection. Moreover, before the economic crisis peaked in the 1990s and mass starvation began, China had signed the Agreement on Repatriation of Border Crossers in 1987, a time when most defectors were politically motivated.[1] Chinese officials were bound by their agreement with North Korea, but the agreement does not recognize the dramatic events that have changed North Korean society.

China’s loyalty to North Korea may actually point to more positive interactions and dealings with defectors on the behalf of authorities. Because China’s close ties to North Korea have had such a strong influence over the way China treats and deals with North Korean defectors, it is also true that China’s more prominent position internationally and its relationships to other nations more active on an international scale demand China’s responsibility to these other nation as well. These new relationships will impact China’s hard line policy on North Korean defectors.

Now that China works with South Korea, the United States, Japan, and the European Union as much as, if not more than, North Korea, China will more often experience diplomatic contact from these nations and respond to the North Korean defector question in a way in greater agreement with the international community. As China tries to balance the requests of North Korea and the international community, the need for the unification of the peninsula becomes more apparent. With unification, more attention can be given to helping all of Korea to improve itself so that all of the peninsula can become a nation safe for its people.


[1] Ko, Chung, and Oh, 72-73.


[1] North Korean Defectors: Their Life and Well-Being after Defection,” Sung Ho Ko, Kiseon Chung, and Yoo-seok Oh, Asian Perspective, 67, Vol. 28, No. 2, 2004, pp.65-99.

[2] Ko, Chung, and Oh, 70.

[3] Ko, Chung, and Oh, 69-71.

[4] Ko, Chung, and Oh, 72.


[1] “United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,” (UNHCR) http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c125.html

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