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URGENT: North Korean Refugees At Risk of Forced Repatriation

November 6, 2023

A Call for Advocacy and Action from LiNK’S CEO, Hannah Song

There are currently large numbers of North Korean refugees being held in detention in China, including a group of individuals who were caught earlier this year while trying to escape through LiNK’s networks. As of last month, the Chinese government has started forcibly sending them back to North Korea where they are at risk of torture, imprisonment in horrific forced labor camps, and even execution.

A North Korean mother grappling with Chinese police as she seeks asylum at the Japanese consulate, 2002. Forced repatriations have been happening in China for decades.

This comes after the North Korean government has slowly reopened the country’s borders. During the pandemic, extreme lockdowns and increased security effectively brought forced repatriations to a temporary halt. At the same time, Chinese authorities continued to arrest and detain North Korean defectors, waiting for the opportunity to send them back. UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights, Elizabeth Salmon, estimated this number to have reached 2000 people.

On October 13th, in response to media reports that Chinese authorities had forcibly repatriated around 600 North Korean refugees, the South Korean government confirmed that “a large number” of North Koreans had been sent back.

We are deeply concerned about this situation and the imminent repatriation of more North Korean refugees, including specific individuals we have confirmed are currently in detention.  We are closely monitoring these cases and continue to advocate directly with 10 other governments, the EU, and the UN on this issue. In September, LiNK also signed an open letter to China’s President Xi alongside civil society organizations, calling for humanitarian protection for North Korean refugees.

Right now, this issue needs more attention. The Chinese government needs to know that the world is watching and that North Korean refugees must be treated with humanity and dignity.

The Chinese government has 276 embassies and consulates representing their interests around the world, more than any other country. Please contact the embassy or consulate where you live, and also the Chinese mission to the UN, through email and social media to send a simple but direct message of concern and support for North Korean refugees.

Here's What You Can Do:

Copy, and feel free to edit, the template letter below, and email it to the Chinese Foreign Ministry via the Chinese embassy or consulate where you live, and also the Chinese mission to the UN:

United States
DC: [email protected]
NY: [email protected]
LA: [email protected]
SF: [email protected]
Chicago: [email protected]

South Korea: [email protected]
Australia: [email protected]
Canada: [email protected]
France: [email protected]
Germany: [email protected]
Japan: [email protected]
UK: [email protected]

Chinese missions to the UN
Chinese mission to the UN in New York: [email protected]
Chinese mission to the UN in Geneva: [email protected]

If your country is not listed above you can find it by googling “email Chinese embassy [your country]".

Template Letter to Chinese Foreign Minister:

Dear Minister Wang Yi,

I am writing to express my concern about the large number of North Korean escapees who are currently in detention in China, and the risk of them being forcibly sent back to North Korea to face torture, horrific conditions in forced labor camps, and potentially even execution.

Such treatment would clearly be inhumane from any standard of basic decency, but since China is a signatory to the Refugee Convention and Convention against Torture, there is even more obligation and expectation for Chinese authorities to facilitate an individualized determination of refugee status and humanitarian protection for North Korean escapees in China. Failure to do so damages the image of China and the reputation of the Chinese government around the world..

I appeal to your good conscience, and the sympathy of Chinese people for North Koreans facing horrific abuse, in asking your government to stop forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees and instead treat them with the humanity and dignity that any person in this world deserves.

Sincerely,
[Name]
[City/Region]

Twitter (X) Users:

Additionally, you can tweet at the Chinese Foreign Ministry using this template tweet: 

There’s a lot going on in the world right now. The Chinese government is taking advantage of this diverted attention to quietly send North Koreans back, and it will quietly continue to do so. This is the time where we need strength in numbers and Allies around the world to clearly and firmly call out their inhumane actions.

Thank you for standing with the North Korean people.

A North Korean Mom and Son’s Harrowing Escape | Harry’s Story

January 5, 2024

The town I grew up in was surrounded by mountains. When the season was right, my friends and I would hike up to look for pears. Fresh fruit was a luxury in North Korea, but the mountainside was covered in orchards. One day we snuck in when the fruit was still green, hoping to avoid the guards.

I hid in a tree, passing down pears to my friends, when we heard a whistle blow. My heart was pounding; it was like a heist movie. I rolled away and ran out of danger. Somehow, we got away with it. It didn’t even matter that the fruit we ate was not ripe and made our stomachs hurt—we felt unstoppable.

Little did I know that just a few years later, I would be running for my life once again… but this time, it was not a game. I would be escaping from North Korea.

Life in North Korea was normal to me. I went to school and spent time with my friends and older sister. All I knew about South Korea was from the movies I’d secretly watched. It seemed like a scary place, where they trafficked drugs and stole your organs.

My mom was often busy with work. She had a job that connected North Koreans to China, wiring money between families. With her income, we were able to live comfortably. But it was risky. She could usually bribe the guards to let her cross the border safely, but it wouldn’t work forever. One day, she was caught and sent to one of North Korea’s brutal prison camps.

My mom spent two years in the prison camp, forced to do intense labor every day while barely being fed. She told us later that she had shared a concrete cell with 50 other people and they lacked basic things like soap, toilet paper, and sanitary products. Guards would abuse their power and find any reason to assault them.

Many people in the camp were also women who had been arrested for crossing the border, trying to find ways to make a living and take care of their children. Dying in prison meant your crimes would be passed on to your family. And so, many of those women endured faithfully until they were released, and then passed away afterward.

When my mom finally left the camp, she quit the work she was doing and told her clients she was done. But one of them refused to hear it.

He was a South Korean fisherman whose boat had been thrown off course by a typhoon, and North Korean authorities refused to let him return home. One night, he showed up drunk at our house and threatened my mom. If she didn’t take him across the border, he would turn her in. So she had no choice. None of us did.

My mom took me with her and brought the old man to the border of North Korea. We were supposed to meet some brokers who would take him across, but they couldn’t agree on a price or a place. After a few days of waiting, everything went wrong.

The police had discovered our plan. They had our photos and were already putting up wanted posters for our capture. There was no way we could go home now. The choice was made for us. We had to flee the country with the old man.

I thought I would die that night. Armed soldiers patrol the river bordering North Korea and China, and are told to shoot defectors on sight.

If caught, my mom would have faced life in prison for her second offense—no better than a death sentence. But somehow, we made it to the other side.

In China, we waited three days in the mountains for our brokers. Every moment spent at a standstill was a huge risk, because Chinese authorities pay local citizens to report North Korean refugees. When it became clear that help wasn’t coming, we headed for a nearby village, laying low in the grass until the cover of night.

By nightfall, we took our chances and entered the village. Luckily, we met a kind woman who introduced us to a new broker. This broker helped us get to another city where the old man was picked up by South Korean officials and flown home to his family. As for me and my mom, we couldn’t go back to North Korea. So we went to see my middle sister, who had already been in China for quite some time.

Before I was born, my mom took my two sisters to China with her. She wanted them to stay there safely, but my oldest sister refused and returned to North Korea with my mom. My middle sister was left behind, sent to live with a trusted friend. But the unthinkable happened. At 12 years old, she was trafficked and sold to be married to a much older man. Every night, she would stand by the water well, threatening to hang herself if the man came near her.

But one year later, the inevitable happened. When she was just 13 years old, she had a baby. 

Like many other young North Korean women, my sister went across the border seeking a better life, but ended up living her teenage years in captivity, with no laws or family to protect her. Every day she had imagined running away, until finally she did. She reunited with my mom in North Korea when she was 20.

But not everything went as hoped. Though she was happy to be together with our family again, it turned out life was just as hard in North Korea. In the end, my sister returned to her daughter in China just a few years later.

It had been years since we last saw my sister, and it was my first time meeting her daughter, my niece. We were the same age. For a month, we all enjoyed the bittersweet reunion. Then my sister connected us with another broker, and my mom and I finally escaped for good.

We eventually reached South Korea and it turns out, it wasn’t the dangerous country I had seen in movies. 

Still, the memories of everything we had been through tormented me. I was angry at the old man who pressured us into his escape plan. I hated that my mom chose such a risky job in the first place.

Later we found out my oldest sister had been tortured by North Korean authorities when we left, leaving her devastated by mental illness. They wanted her to confess that our family had helped the old man escape. Someone had to take the blame. My older sister, who was once strong and reliable, would never be the same again.

When I first reached South Korea, I hid my past. Everything was terrifying and different—the culture, the lifestyle, and even the language. My new friends would hang out at internet cafes and I didn’t even know how to use a computer.

But I started learning. I studied hard in school and got a job to support myself. I began reading books to develop my own philosophy for my new life. I even started playing video games and for better or for worse, became just as obsessed as everyone else.

When I got to high school, I finally told my friends the truth about my life. Their response was so different from what I had expected. I found that rather than being cruel, they were curious. I realized the importance of my story, and how sharing my family’s painful experiences could change people’s perspectives about North Korea.

In 2019, at the end of high school, I met someone from Liberty in North Korea. I was so curious how she spoke about North Korea. She invited me to attend their Changemakers Summit and I had never experienced anything like that before—South Koreans, North Koreans, and even foreigners who were all young, open-minded, and interested in how to make an impact on this issue.

Truthfully, I never saw myself as an activist. I didn’t think I had what it takes. 

But if I could change how just one person saw North Korea—to see the people and their resilience, bravery, and hope instead of the regime—I realized I was already acting as an advocate.

These days, I’m working and studying full time. After coming to South Korea my mom got her masters degree and is now writing a book about her life. My middle sister eventually escaped and joined us in South Korea too. She got remarried and finally gets to live a normal life. Even though we’re all pursuing different things, we’re still together, holding tightly to the hope that we will someday reunite with my older sister.

Today, I can be my own person. I can buy fresh fruit whenever I want, or walk along the Han river anytime. After all of the running and all of the pain, I am finally free to choose my own life.

Harry’s story echoes that of many North Korean refugees, who live with the weight of their past while grasping onto hope for the future. After what happened to his oldest sister, Harry says he has nothing left to lose. That’s why he chooses to speak openly about the horrific things he and his family have experienced, hoping to bring change and one day reunite with her in a free North Korea.

Help us continue to to sustain refugee rescues, empowerment programs, and efforts to change the way the world sees North Korea.

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